Yesterday I finished Jake Halpern’s new book, Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street To The Underground.
It’s an interesting series of close-up descriptions of the people who have been buying and selling revolving debt since the credit crisis, as well as the actual business of debt collecting. He talks about the very real problem, for debt collectors, of having no proof of debt, of having other people who have stolen on your debt trying to collect on it at the same time, and of course the fact that some debt collectors resort to illegal threats and misleading statements to get debtors – or possibly ex-debtors, it’s never entirely clear – to pay up or suffer the consequences. An arms race of quasi-legal and illegal cultural practices.
Halpern does a good job explaining the plight of the debt collectors, including the people hired for the call centers. It’s the poor pitted against the poorer here, a dirty fight where information asymmetry is absolutely essential to the profit margin of any given tier of the system.
Halpern outlines those tiers well, as well as the interesting lingo created by this subculture centered, at least until recently, in Buffalo, New York. People at the top are credit card companies themselves or hedge fund buyers from credit card companies; in other words, people who get “fresh debt” lists in the form of excel spreadsheets, where the people listed have recently stopped paying and might have some resources to pull. Then there are people who deal in older debt, which is harder to collect on. After that are people who have yet older debt which may or may not be stolen, so other collectors might simultaneously be picking over the carcasses. At the very bottom of the pile, from Halpern’s perspective, come the lawyers. They bring debtors to court and try to garnish wages.
Somewhat buried at very end of Halpern’s book is some quite useful information for the debtors. So for example, if you ever get dragged to court by a debt collection lawyer,
- definitely show up (or else they will just garnish your wages)
- ask for proof that they own the debt and how you spent it. They will likely not have such documentation and will dismiss your case.
Overall Bad Paper is a good book, and it explains a lot of interesting and useful information, but from my perspective, being firmly on the side of (most of) the debtors, everyone who gets a copy of the book should also get a copy of Strike Debt’s Debt Resistors’ Operation Manual, which has way more useful information, and even form letters, for the debtor.
As far as real solutions, we see the usual problems: underfunded and impotent regulators in the FTC, the CFPB, and the Attorney General’s office, as well as ridiculously small fines when actually caught that amount to fractions of the profit already made by illegal tactics. Everyone is feasting, even when they don’t find much meat on the bones.
Given how big a problem this is, and how many people are being pursued by debt collectors, you’d think they might set up a system of incentives so lawyers can make money by nailing illegal actions instead of just leveraging outdated information and trying to squeeze poor people out of their paychecks.
The bigger problem, once again, is that so many people are flat broke and largely go into debt for things like emergency expenses. And yes, of course there are people who buy a bunch of things they don’t need and then refuse to pay off their debts – Halpern profiles one such person – but the vast majority of the people we’re talking about are the struggling poor. It would be nice to see our country become a place where we don’t need so much damn debt in the first place, then the scavengers wouldn’t have so many rubbish piles to live off of.
Yesterday at the Alt Banking group we discussed the recent Koch brothers article from Rolling Stone Magazine, written by Tim Dickinson. You should read it now if you haven’t already.
There are tons of issues that came up, but one of them in particular was the control of information that the Koch brothers maintain over their activities. If you read the article, you realize that the brothers are die-hard libertarians but at some point realized that saying out loud that they are die-hard libertarians was working against them, specifically in terms of getting into trouble for polluting the environment with their chemical factories, so instead they started talking about how much they love the environment and work to protect it.
It’s not that they stopped polluting, it’s that their rhetoric changed. In fact there’s no reason to think they stopped polluting, since they still had plenty of regulators going after them for various violations. Since their apparent change of heart they’ve also decided to be publicly philanthropic, giving money to hospitals, and Lincoln Center, and even PBS (see how that worked out on Stephen Colbert).
The problem with all this window dressing is that people are actually starting to think the Koch brothers may be good guys after all, and what with the fancy lawyers that the Koch brothers hire to control information about them, the public view is very skewed.
For example, how many economists have they bought and inserted into universities nationwide? We will never really know. There’s no way we can keep a score sheet with “good deeds” on one side and “shitty deeds” on the other. We don’t have enough information for the second side.
The exception to this information control is when they get in trouble with regulators and it becomes a matter of public record. And thank goodness those court documents exist, and thank goodness investigative journalist Tim Dickinson did all the work he did to explain it to us.
A couple of conclusions. First, we complain a lot about the bank settlements for the misdeeds of the big banks. Nobody went to jail, and the system is just as likely to repeat this kind of thing again as it was in 2005. But another problem with this out-of-court settlement process, we now realize, is that we actually don’t know what happened except in big, vague terms. There will be no Tim Dickinson reporting on big banks.
Second, the connection to Detroit. Right now there are 15,000 residents of Detroit whose water has been shut down, basically so they can privatize the water system with the best deal from Wall Street. They owe less than $10 million, on average a measly $540. The United Nations has called this water shutoff a violation of the human rights of the people of Detroit.
If you feel bad about that, you can donate to someone’s water bill directly, which is kind of neat.
Or is it? Shouldn’t Obama be declaring Detroit a state of emergency? Wouldn’t we be doing that in another city that had 15,000 residents without water? Why is this an exception to that rule? Because the victims are poor? Don’t we recognize Detroit as a place where it’s unusually difficult to find work? Are we going to allow people to shut off heat as well, once winter comes?
Once you think about it, the idea of a “private solution” to the Detroit water emergency seems wrong. In fact, you can almost imagine David Koch coming to the rescue here, as part of his “positive optics” campaign, and bailing out the Detroit citizens and then, for good measure, buying up the water system altogether. A hero!
And if you’re in that mode, you can think about the asymptotic limit of that approach, whereby a few very rich people gradually take control of resources, and then there are intermittent famines of various types in different cities, and the rich people swoop in and heroically save the day whilst scooping up even more ownership of what used to be public infrastructure. And we might thank them every time, because it was a dire situation and they didn’t really need to do that with all their money.
It’s frustrating to live in a country that has so many resources but which can’t seem to get it together to meet the basic human needs of its citizens. We need a basic income, at least for the people in Detroit, at least right now.
If you want to join us, come to 79th and Central Park West at 11am, in front of the Natural History Museum. We will have signs and a banner. See you there, I hope!
I am super excited to announce that best-selling British author Nafeez Ahmed will be speaking at the Alt Banking group this Sunday. The title of his talk is Mass Surveillance and the Crisis of Civilization: The inevitable collapse of the old paradigm and the potential for the rise of the new.
Ahmed is an international security scholar and investigative journalist and executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. He writes for The Guardian on the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises, and is currently on tour in the United States to launch his science fiction novel, Zero Point.
As advance reading for this talk, we recommend browsing through his Guardian articles, including the widely read June 2014 piece, Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown. He’s also recently published on occupy.com an article entitled Exposed: Pentagon Funds New Data-Mining Tools To Track and Kill Activists, Part I.
Details: Ahmed will speak from 2-3pm on Sunday, August 24th, in room 409 of the International Affairs Building of Columbia University at W. 118th Street and Amsterdam Ave. After that we will have our regular meeting from 3-5pm in the same room, followed by food and drinks at Amsterdam Tapas. Please join us! And if you can’t this weekend but want to be on our mailing list, please email that request to email@example.com.
I’m excited to announce that Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor who is running against Andrew Cuomo for Governor of New York, will be coming to speak to the Alternative Banking group next Sunday, July 13th, from 3pm-5pm in the usual place, Room 409 of the International Affairs Building at 118th and Amsterdam. More about Alt Banking on our website.
Title: Teachout-Wu vs. Cuomo-Hochul in the Democratic Primary in New York!
Description: Come hear candidate Teachout talk about her anti-corruption trust-busting campaign against Governor Cuomo.
Background: Teachout is an antitrust and media expert who served as the Director of Internet organizing for the 2004 Howard Dean Presidential Campaign. She co-founded A New Way Forward, an organization built to break up the power of big banks. Teachout was the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation. More here.
If we have time after talking to Zephyr we will discuss Stiglitz’s article, The Myth Of America’s Golden Age.
Please make time to come hear Zephyr, and please spread the word.
This is a great book. It’s well written, clear, and it focuses on important issues. I did not check all of the claims made by the data but, assuming they hold up, the book makes two hugely important points which hopefully everyone can understand and debate, even if we don’t all agree on what to do about them.
First, the authors explain the insufficiency of monetary policy to get the country out of recession. Second, they suggest a new way to structure debt.
To explain these points, the authors do something familiar to statisticians: they think about distributions rather than averages. So rather than talking about how much debt there was, or how much the average price of houses fell, they talked about who was in debt, and where they lived, and which houses lost value. And they make each point carefully, with the natural experiments inherent in our cities due to things like available land and income, to try to tease out causation.
Their first main point is this: the financial system works against poor people (“borrowers”) much more than rich people (“lenders”) in times of crisis, and the response to the financial crisis exacerbated this discrepancy.
The crisis fell on poor people much more heavily: they were wiped out by the plummeting housing prices, whereas rich people just lost a bit of their wealth. Then the government stepped in and protected creditors and shareholders but didn’t renegotiate debt, which protected lenders but not borrowers. This is a large reason we are seeing so much increasing inequality and why our economy is stagnant. They make the case that we should have bailed out homeowners not only because it would have been fair but because it would have been helpful economically.
The authors looked into what actually caused the Great Recession, and they come to a startling conclusion: that the banking crisis was an effect, rather than a cause, of enormous household debt and consumer pull-back. Their narrative goes like this: people ran up debt, then started to pull back, and and as a result the banking system collapsed, as it was utterly dependent on ever-increasing debt. Moreover, the financial system did a very poor job of figuring out how to allocate capital and the people who made those loans were not adequately punished, whereas the people who got those loans were more than reasonably punished.
About half of the run-up of household debt was explained by home equity extraction, where people took out money from their home to spend on stuff. This is partly due to the fact that, in the meantime, wages were stagnant and home equity was a big thing and was hugely available.
But the authors also made the case that, even so, the bubble wasn’t directly caused by rising home valuations but rather to securitization and the creation of “financial innovation” which made investors believe they were buying safe products which were in fact toxic. In their words, securities are invented to exploit “neglected risks” (my experience working in a financial risk firm absolutely agrees to this; whenever you hear the phrase “financial innovation,” please interpret it to mean “an instrument whose risk hides somewhere in the creases that investors are not yet aware of”).
They make the case that debt access by itself elevates prices and build bubbles. In other words, it was the sausage factory itself, producing AAA-rated ABS CDO’s that grew the bubble.
Next, they talked about what works and what doesn’t, given this distributional way of looking at the household debt crisis. Specifically, monetary policy is insufficient, since it works through the banks, who are unwilling to lend to the poor who are already underwater, and only rich people benefit from cheap money and inflated markets. Even at its most extreme, the Fed can at most avoid deflation but it not really help create inflation, which is what debtors need.
Fiscal policy, which is to say things like helicopter money drops or added government jobs, paid by taxpayers, is better but it makes the wrong people pay – high income earners vs. high wealth owners – and isn’t as directly useful as debt restructuring, where poor people get a break and it comes directly from rich people who own the debt.
There are obstacles to debt restructuring, which are mostly political. Politicians are impotent in times of crisis, as we’ve seen, so instead of waiting forever for that to happen, we need a new kind of debt contract that automatically gets restructured in times of crisis. Such a new-fangled contract would make the financial system actually spread out risk better. What would that look like?
The authors give two examples, for mortgages and student debt. The student debt example is pretty simple: how quickly you need to pay back your loans depends in part on how many jobs there are when you graduate. The idea is to cushion the borrower somewhat from macro-economic factors beyond their control.
Next, for mortgages, they propose something the called the shared-responsibility mortgage. The idea here is to have, say, a 30-year mortgage as usual, but if houses in your area lost value, your principal and monthly payments would go down in a commensurate way. So if there’s a 30% drop, your payments go down 30%. To compensate the lenders for this loss-share, the borrowers also share the upside: 5% of capital gains are given to the lenders in the case of a refinancing.
In the case of a recession, the creditors take losses but the overall losses are smaller because we avoid the foreclosure feedback loops. It also acts as a form of stimulus to the borrowers, who are more likely to spend money anyway.
If we had had such mortgage contracts in the Great Recession, the authors estimate that it would have been worth a stimulus of $200 billion, which would have in turn meant fewer jobs lost and many fewer foreclosures and a smaller decline of housing prices. They also claim that shared-responsibility mortgages would prevent bubbles from forming in the first place, because of the fear of creditors that they would be sharing in the losses.
A few comments. First, as a modeler, I am absolutely sure that once my monthly mortgage payment is directly dependent on a price index, that index is going to be manipulated. Similarly as a college graduate trying to figure out how quickly I need to pay back my loans. And depending on how well that manipulation works, it could be a disaster.
Second, it is interesting to me that the authors make no mention of the fact that, for many forms of debt, restructuring is already a typical response. Certainly for commercial mortgages, people renegotiate their principal all the time. We can address the issue of how easy it is to negotiate principal directly by talking about standards in contracts.
Having said that I like the idea of having a contract that makes restructuring automatic and doesn’t rely on bypassing the very real organizational and political frictions that we see today.
Let me put it this way. If we saw debt contracts being written like this, where borrowers really did have down-side protection, then the people of our country might start actually feeling like the financial system was working for them rather than against them. I’m not holding my breath for this to actually happen.
This coming Sunday my friend Adam Reich is coming to Alternative Banking to talk about his work as the faculty director of a collaborative project this summer between Columbia’s INCITE and the OUR Walmart campaign.
The plan involves twenty students to scatter across the country, organizing and conducting oral history interviews alongside Walmart workers in five regions.
It is also, not coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer of 1964, when a bunch of volunteers including students helped register black Mississippians to vote.
Adam is an activist and a sociologist professor at Columbia. He is also an author of three books including Selling Our Souls: The Commodification of Hospital Care in the United States.
Details are as follows, and I hope you can come:
Where: Room 409 of the International Affairs Building at 118th and Amsterdam.
When: Sunday, June 8th, 2-3pm.