In Praise of Usury
Friday, August 3, 2007
Ignore credit snobs. It is no sin to profit from lending to the poor.
IN DANTE’S ?Divine Comedy?, usurers are consigned to a flaming desert of sand within the seventh circle of hell. Attitudes have since softened a bit. Microcreditors, who offer small loans to self-employed poor people, enjoy hallowed reputations. One has even ascended to the rank of a Nobel laureate. But lending to the poor is still considered distasteful whenever it is pricey, short-term and profitable. In America, for example, many activists are quick to damn ?payday? lenders, who may charge high fees for offering cash advances on a worker’s next pay cheque.
Why this hostility? To profit from lending to the poor, critics say, is to prey on the most vulnerable, at their most vulnerable moment. Faced with desperate customers, loan sharks can charge well over the odds, even when the risk of default is slight. The money they proffer is often squandered on spurious consumption, critics say, rather than productive investments that would help the borrower repay his debts. Easy credit thus tempts people into a damaging spiral of indebtedness.
That may be enough for Dante. But economists take a bit more convincing. If loans hurt the poor, why do they take them? Surely they are capable of looking after their own interests. Alex Tabarrok, an influential economics blogger, thinks the anti-usury lobby are ?credit snobs?, who think that credit is something only the rich can handle.
Some critics of usury appeal to psychology not snobbery, however. The ?behavioural? economists have shown that people’s decisions often conflict with the plans they had laid for themselves. When planning for the future, people are willing to defer gratification, forgoing smaller, earlier rewards in favour of bigger, later ones. But when choosing in the present, they give up huge future benefits for immediate gratification. If they anticipate their own weakness, people may quite rationally chop up their credit cards, or tie money up in illiquid assets. It is the financial equivalent of avoiding restaurants with irresistible desserts.
Some governments have concluded that by denying expensive credit to the poor, they would be doing them a favour. In America, many states have crimped payday lending by imposing anti-usury laws or restrictions on lending terms. In Japan, interest-rate caps have, in effect, wiped out much of the formal consumer-lending industry.
In poorer countries, governments are ambivalent. On the one hand, they are anxious to subsidise microfinance, extending small-business loans further than the market allows. But they take the opposite attitude towards consumer credit, imposing interest-rate caps that stop lenders reaching as many people as they otherwise might. South Africa this year tightened curbs on reckless lending and overborrowing.
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