Consumer protection: When to protect, and how

The 2008 global financial crisis intensified conversations about consumer protection. The financial crisis showed us that overly-liberalized credit markets can lead to overlending by institutions and heavy debt burdens for borrowers.  Not surprisingly, the buzz these days is about “responsible banking.”

But self-regulation may not be enough—and may not be appropriate.  After all, these are the same banks and institutions that created the original problems.  Regulators are thus determining their next steps.
There are always trade-offs in designing regulations, though, and this isn’t the obvious time to be adding extra burdens for already-burdened regulators.  Nor is it clear that imposing extra costs on financial institutions won’t affect their ability to serve poorer and under-served communities.  Our evidence to date suggests the opposite.

Some thoughtful institutions have done a nice job of making a case for a set of basic global standards for protection, recommending measures that include transparent pricing and instituting mechanisms to redress grievances. At the Financial Access Initiative, David Porteous is examining the issue of protection through a slightly different lens in a new Policy Framing Note, “Consumer Protection in Credit Markets.”

Porteous considers the case for protection in light of new evidence from behavioral economics about how people make financial decisions. Research reveals that our actions and attitudes display systematic patterns that aren’t always rational, and that this irrationality has important effects on credit markets. Even when we’re informed about our choices (and the poor are often less well-informed), we are inherently subject to behavioral biases. Our vulnerability to marketing stands as one example.  The problem arises because while we may be unaware of our blind spots, lenders usually are not. Porteous recommends addressing the tension through product innovations like simplification and standardization of disclosure requirements, and allowing customers to “opt-out” of parts of contracts (for example, providing credit insurance with a loan at a fee unless the customer declines it).

The question is whether regulators should go further. Porteous is duly wary of the “rush to regulate.” He walks us through a comparison of legislative approaches in a range of developed and developing countries, pointing out that any protection regime will be ineffective unless there is the capacity to monitor lender and borrower behavior and enforce penalties and remedies. Despite good intentions, inappropriate regulation (or even appropriate regulation without the capacity to enforce it) can damage nascent credit markets.

Consumer protection is a hot topic and steps are surely necessary.  One lesson from the global crisis is that it’s better to take strong steps now than to wait until after the damage has been done. But all policies carry costs as well as benefits.  Deciding when, and in what form, to introduce protection measures is the regulator’s dilemma today.