The ostensible aim of their proposal
is laudable: to make credit more affordable for American households at a time when they carry a collective balance
of $870 billion, with an average credit-card APR
of 17.73%. But the consequences of a cap would be disastrous, removing access to credit for millions of low- and moderate-income households and forcing them to rely on family members, tighten their belts or seek higher-cost forms of credit.
Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders wonder why
banks charge double-digit interest if they can borrow funds at 2.5%, the rate at which banks lend to each other.
But that is a misleading comparison. First, 2.5% is the rate banks pay on very short-term borrowing, which is less risky and therefore cheaper than longer-term consumer credit. Second, the business of banking is expensive. Banks spend time and resources screening borrowers to assess their creditworthiness. They invest in physical and virtual facilities to ensure the safety of customer funds and their personal information, online and offline. Banks also employ hundreds of thousands of staff to help customers find the products they need, understand the terms of each product, and service mortgages, small-business loans and credit-card debt.
The ever-increasing number of regulatory mandates
hasn't helped lower the cost of providing banking services either. The financial industry is one of America's most regulated sectors, with more than 27,000 new regulations
added to the books since 2010. That regulatory accumulation goes some way to explain why the cost of financial intermediation hasn't really gone down
since 1960. It also explains why, despite all the talk about banker greed, the post-crisis return on equity for most banks
remains comparably low at 10% to 12%
— and concerningly low for the smallest banks, at 7.5%.
Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders seem to assume that whatever is bad for the banks will be good for consumers. But the evidence from previous interventions suggests otherwise.
After the financial crisis, legislators passed the Durbin Amendment, which capped the fees
that banks could charge businesses for using debit cards in an attempt to lower consumer costs. But it hasn't been successful. Banks have replaced their debit fee income with new fees on bank accounts
and by requiring higher minimum balances. While businesses saw their debit card payment costs decline, they didn't pass on those savings to consumers. What's more, many consumers had to switch from debit to credit cards, and up to a million
of them may have become unbanked due to the Durbin Amendment, according to a study by my colleague Todd Zywicki at George Mason University.
With more than 8 million American households lacking a bank account
and another 24 million without access to much consumer credit, it would be a reckless gamble to remove the few options many low-income Americans currently have by making it unprofitable to lend to them.
The 15% cap would also apply to payday loans — a short-term alternative overwhelmingly used by people who simply have nowhere else to turn because their credit scores are very poor and they have high outstanding debts.
Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders call payday lenders "loan sharks" to imply they abuse their customers. While annualized interest rates on payday loans look very high, one must keep in mind that the term of these loans is short, typically two weeks. Furthermore, payday loans are better than illegal alternatives that can result in higher rates or even criminal behavior. Yet, a 15% cap would make it impossible for most of these credit-constrained Americans to get credit through payday loans or other means.