Publication Date

February 2011

Author(s)

Janneke Ratcliffe, Kim Manturuk

Client/Funder

North Carolina Commissioner of Banks

North Carolina’ s Consumer Finance Act appears to adequately protect the estimated 6 percent of North Carolina consumers using direct consumer installment loans while enabling the industry to operate profitably.

Executive Summary

The modern consumer finance installment loan industry is nearly a century old. For 50 years, the industry in North Carolina has been regulated through the North Carolina Consumer Finance Act (G.S.53, the CFA or the Act). The CFA and other similar laws were originally passed when working people had few legal credit options; these laws were effective in driving out illegal loan sharking by providing a safe, accessible lending option. The CFA has evolved but stayed true to the fundamental principle of providing access to affordable, repayable credit. Today, the CFA governs the business of providing direct-to-consumer installment loans in amounts up to $10,000 for terms of up to seven years in a highly regulated manner.

The consumer finance installment loan industry is a product of public policy. This policy framework warrants occasional review as the world changes.  In this spirit, North Carolina lawmakers have reexamined the state of the consumer finance industry and the balance between lender viability and consumer protection. In the process, a legislative study commission, the Joint Legislative Commission on the Modernization of North Carolina Banking Laws and the Consumer Finance Act (the Commission) called on the North Carolina Office of the Commissioner of Banks (NCCOB) to conduct a more in-depth study. This report presents evidence from study group meetings, licensees’ annual reports, interviews, presentations, existing research, and reports and recommendations submitted to the NCCOB. The Commission’s overarching requirement was that the law contain appropriate consumer protections but also recognize the potential profitability of the lender. The CFA currently appears to adequately protect consumer interests, and provide a relatively safe source of credit for about 6% of North Carolinians. Most of these North Carolinians have bank accounts and credit cards, but they are more likely to be credit constrained and have relatively fewer affordable options. CFA strictures protect these borrowers from excessive costs associated with many of the alternatives.  At the same time, the consumer finance installment loan industry continues to demonstrate potential for profit under the CFA. Lenders recorded an aggregate profit in 2009. Over the past 12 years, the majority of licensees have been profitable, and the aggregate industry net worth more than doubled between 1998 and 2009. The decline among large national chains has dampened aggregate profitability for the industry in this state, but if we remove the national chains from the equation, we see a stable record of positive net income since 2001.

Nevertheless, the industry is not thriving. Lenders report difficulties raising debt and equity to fund growth or start new companies. In fact, industry growth has declined by several measures in relation to volume. Due to structural changes in the market, we see a long-term decline in the share of consumer credit provided by consumer finance companies. The efficient and convenient credit card has come to dominate consumer credit, eclipsing the traditional hands-on, bricks-and-mortar model of the consumer finance lender. In the short-term, retrenching by credit card lenders and banks may open opportunities for consumer finance lenders, but economic weakness may also reduce the number of qualified prospects.  Disentangling the short-term effects of the credit crisis from long-term fundamentals is challenging as the net effect of the credit crisis remains to be seen.

Additional findings and conclusions:

  • Operating costs have risen over the study period; from 1998 to 2009, the aggregate average cost per loan has increased in line with inflation. Lenders benefitted from the offsetting fact that the aggregate average-interest expense per loan hit a 12-year low in 2009. Among the non-national chain lenders, average loan balances have also risen at about the same rate as inflation.
  • The appropriate metrics are needed to evaluate industry health for policy decisions. Detailed throughout this report, we cite the limitations of using the annual report data, and describe the analytic techniques we applied to adjust for any distortive data. The right metrics must also be used, including greater detail and segmentation. Enhanced reporting requirements and public report formats will be implemented for 2010 reports.  These changes should give policymakers a clearer view of the industry.
  • Extensive analysis of the available data indicates that variation between lenders accounts for most of the variation in profitability, which is not surprising given the large number of small operators whose profit margins are prone to being irregular. Next, cost of funds and credit losses are the strongest drivers of profit. Our analysis leads us to caution that permanent changes to the CFA may not be an appropriate response to temporary economic conditions that are not under the control of lenders or legislators.
  • We found nothing to suggest that maximum loan amounts to a single individual should be increased. Through the annual report data, we saw that only a small number of loans are being made in the top of the allowed range.
  • We also saw no strong evidence that called for increasing consumer protection and disclosure.