The good news is that payday lending appears to be on the decline in Utah.
The bad news is that the lenders are raising rates and taking more debtors to court.
The Utah Department of Financial Institutions released its annual report on “non-depository lenders,” which includes check-cashing stores, payday lenders and title loan companies. It appears Utahns are not walking into those businesses as much as they once did. One in five stores has closed in the last two years, and business overall is down.
So what has changed? An improving economy probably has as much to do with it as anything, but the Utah Legislature has also beefed up state oversight of an industry that has sent too many vulnerable Utahns into a debt spiral.
But the decline in business hasn’t stopped the astounding average interest rate on these loans from rising. The average was 485 percent last year and climbed to 528 percent this year. The highest rate that any one was charged in the year also climbed from 1,408 percent to 1,565 percent.
The people who run these outfits are quick to make the point that customers don’t keep these loans for a full year. They are intended as short-term loans, so no one actually pays 15 times more than the original loan value. True, but that argument also understates the number of people who roll over their debt to new loans, which the lenders happily accommodate. Debt is a trap, and more high-interest loans only makes it harder to escape.
The lenders are also taking more debtors to court, the report shows. Last year only 3.35 percent of borrowers were sued. This year it’s 6.94 percent.
The most promising development is the rising use of state-mandated programs to convert the short-term loans to longer term extended payment programs at no interest. Now one in eight payday loan customers takes advantage of those.
There are better alternatives for people who are under water. There are consumer credit counseling organizations that will help people consolidate their debts into realistic payment schedules, and they’re non-profit.
The state should continue to keep a sharp watch on this industry, but the biggest burden will always be on consumers who need to understand that these stores won’t solve their long-term money problems. There is evidence that a growing number of Utahns get that.