Week of March 4, 2018

Editor's Note: I again triumphantly wrestled the faiV from Tim Ogden’s clutches this week. Well, actually, he asked me to take over while he’s in transit today. Inspired by this week's amazing Pooh noir Twitter thread, I decided to dedicate this faiV to some powerful investigations (of the journalistic, not private eye, not private eye type). --Jonathan Morduch

1. Crappy Financial Products: The results are no surprise, but it remains troubling to see the numbers. “Color and Credit” is a 2018 revision of a 2017 paper by Taylor Begley and Amitatosh Purnanandam. The subtitle is “Race, Regulation, and the Quality of Financial Services.” Most studies of consumer financial problems look at quantity: the lack of access to financial products. But here the focus is on quality: You can get products, but they’re lousy. Too often, they’re mis-sold, fraudulent, and accompanied by bad customer service. These problems had been hard to see, but they’ve been uncovered via the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Complaints database, a terrifically valuable, publicly accessible—and freely downloadable—database. (Side note: this makes me very nervous about the CFPB’s current commitment to maintaining the data.)

Thousands of complaints are received each week, and the authors look at 170,000 complaints from 2012-16, restricted to mortgage problems. The complaints come from 16,309 unique zipcodes – and the question is: which zipcodes have the most complaints and why? The first result is that low income and low educational attainment in a zipcode are strongly associated with low quality products. Okay, you already predicted that. On top of those effects, the share of the local population identified as being part of a minority group also predicts low quality. No surprise again, but you might not have predicted the magnitude: The minority-share impact is 2-3 times stronger then the income or education impact (even when controlling for income and education). The authors suspect that active discrimination is at work, citing court cases and mystery shopper exercises which show that black and Hispanic borrowers are pushed toward riskier loans despite having credit scores that should merit better options. So, why? Part of the problem could be that efforts to help the most disadvantaged areas are backfiring. Begley and Purnanandam give evidence that regulation to help disadvantaged communities actually reduces the quality of financial products. The culprit is the Community Reinvestment Act, and the authors argue that by focusing the regs on increasing the quantity of services delivered in certain zipcodes, the quality of those services has been compromised – and much more so in heavily-minority areas. Unintended consequences that ought to be taken seriously.

2. TrumpTown: Another great database. ProPublica is a national resource – a nonprofit newsroom. They’ve been doing a lot of data gathering and number-crunching lately. Four items today are from ProPublica. The first is the geekiest: a just-released, searchable database of 2,475 Trump administration appointees. The team spent a year making requests under the Freedom of Information Act, allowing you to now spend the afternoon getting to know the mid-tier officials who are busily deregulating the US economy. The biggest headline is that, of the 2,475 appointees, 187 had been lobbyists, 125 had worked at (conservative) think tanks, and 254 came out of the Trump campaign. Okay, that’s not too juicy. Still, the database is a resource that could have surprising value, even if it’s not yet clear how. Grad students: have a go at it. (Oh, and I’d like to think that ProPublica would have done something similar if Hilary Clinton was president.)

3. Household Finance (and Inequality): This ProPublica story is much more juicy, and much more troubling. Writing in the Washington Post, ProPublica’s Paul Kiel starts: “A ritual of spring in America is about to begin. Tens of thousands of people will soon get their tax refunds, and when they do, they will finally be able to afford the thing they’ve thought about for months, if not years: bankruptcy.” Kiel continues, “It happens every tax season. With many more people suddenly able to pay a lawyer, the number of bankruptcy filings jumps way up in March, stays high in April, then declines.” Bankruptcy is a last resort, but for many people it’s the only way to get on a better path. Even when straddled with untenable debt, it turns out to be costly to get a fresh start.

The problem will be familiar to anyone who has read financial diaries: the need for big, lumpy outlays can be a huge barrier to necessary action. Bankruptcy lawyers usually insist on being paid upfront (especially for so-called “chapter 7” bankruptcies). The problem is that if the lawyers agreed to be paid later, they fear that their fees would also be wiped away by the bankruptcy decision. So, the lawyers put themselves first. The trouble is that the money involved is sizeable: The lawyers’ costs plus court fees get close to $1500. The irony abounds. Many people tell Kiel that if they could easily come up with that kind of money, then they probably wouldn’t be in the position to go bankrupt. Bankruptcy judges see the problem and are trying to jerry-rig solutions, but nonprofits haven’t yet made this a priority. So, for over-indebted households, waiting to receive tax refunds turns out to be a key strategy.

4. Municipal Finance and Household Finance (and Inequality): In a related vein, check out this Mother Jones/ProPublica investigation of bankruptcy in Chicago. The title says it all: “How Chicago Ticket Debt Sends Black Motorists Into Bankruptcy. A cash-strapped city employs punitive measures to collect from cash-strapped residents — and lawyers benefit.” The focus is on the city’s reliance on fees from parking tickets to help balance the books – which can add up for residents and lead to bankruptcy. Even a single unpaid parking ticket can create havoc for poorer households. The situation is hard not to connect to Ferguson, Missouri, the scene of the riots after the shooting of Michael Brown, where, among other abuses of the citizenry, the city used the courts and police as revenue-generating mechanisms.)

Ticket debt in Chicago is concentrated in areas that are predominantly poor and black, because there isn’t slack to pay the initial tickets, making it more likely that debt results. A fairer system would impose fines on a scale connected to individuals’ income and ability-to-pay. But, for now, we have a decidedly regressive system in which the least-able-to-pay face disproportionately large penalties.

5. Social Investment: The final ProPublica story is a collaboration with the New York Times. Many have reported on the rising cost of drugs, but we don’t often see deep reporting on those who pay the price. The personal stories are both familiar and shocking. Two common threads: many people are too poor to easily pay the drug prices but not so poor that they have access to generous public benefits. They’re caught in between. The result is that individuals end up juggling which medicines to take in the same way that cash-strapped families juggle which bills to pay each month – only with much higher stakes.
A second theme is (again) problems posed by large, lumpy, upfront costs. For example: “…Novo Nordisk, the company that sells her fast-acting insulin, Novolog, and her diabetes medication, Victoza, requires low-income Medicare beneficiaries to first spend $1,000 on drugs in each calendar year before they can qualify for free drugs through its program. In a cruel twist, Ms. Johnson doesn’t have that $1,000 to spend, so she resorts to not taking some drugs for months until she reaches the company’s threshold.” The stories highlight ways in which health problems are often financial problems.
In a related way, JPMorgan Chase Institute analysis shows that many people defer health spending until they get tax refunds. (Out-of-pocket health spending increased by 60% in the week after getting a tax refund.) Tax refund season is one of the few moments when families have big, lumpy sums to spend on doctors (if they don’t spend them all on filing for bankruptcy).

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