Sunday, January 14, 2007

Banks Gone Wild

Joe Lee, a federal bankruptcy judge, and author Thomas Parrish in the New York Times (subscription required) write about the interaction between usury and the new bankruptcy law. From the editorial:

Thirty years ago, the unlucky R. Z. would probably have struck many of his acquaintances as something of a deadbeat: Hadn’t he voluntarily run up a debt and then tried to slip out of the deal? T. P., on the other hand, would have received sympathy as the victim of a heartless usurer (if interest rates equal to one-third of the principal had been legal in those days).


As for the morality involved in lending money at exorbitant rates, the word “usury” itself has taken on a quaint, archaic sound, like “jousting” or “necromancy.” What happened?

In 1978, the United States Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision that freed banks to charge the interest rates allowed in their home states to customers across the country. This decision, at a time of high inflation, unleashed a national credit storm: states scrambled to relax usury laws in order to attract banks, while banks rushed to establish affiliates in states that weakened or abolished such laws. R. Z. and T. P. are the natural products of this unhappy change. One obvious recourse for people like them is to file for bankruptcy. There’s the stigma to consider, of course. But making such a move would allow R. Z. to end the harassment by the collection agency and both men to make fresh starts free of unsecured debts.


In 2005, these suffering financial institutions succeeded in securing the adoption of new federal legislation, the marvelously named Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. Nobody who favored this bill chose to see that the bankruptcy epidemic had been produced in large measure by the banks, or that the real hidden costs were the usurious interest rates these banks charged borrowers.


A group of credit-counseling firms that provide bankruptcy screening — a step the new law requires — report that 97 percent of the clients could not repay any debts at all, and 79 percent sought relief for reasons beyond their control, like job loss and large medical expenses and, notably, rising credit card fees and predatory lending practices.


In adopting the provision, Congress disregarded the advice of every disinterested group that has looked at the question, including three presidential commissions, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. It also ignored a past House Judiciary Committee report, which declared that such compulsion might well amount to the imposition of involuntary servitude.

Mark Twain once said that "no man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while Congress is in session." It certainly wasn't for debtors in the last Congressional session. Can the Democrats -- who don't have enough votes to override any Presidential veto -- make any meaningful change in credit-related abuses by lending institutions? I doubt it.

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