Credit Card Laws & Ethics
Credit cards: we love them, and we hate them. We love the convenience, but we hate the high interest rates. But really, based on our patterns of usage, it seems like the love/hate relationship is tilted in favour of love; it looks like our fondness for those super-convenient pieces of plastic is getting the better of us. The result: many North Americans are utterly buried under credit card debt. The natural temptation is to blame the banks, and certainly many financial institutions have preyed upon both our fondness of convenient purchasing, and our lack of attention to fine print, to turn credit cards into a cash cow.
But see this story, by Jennifer Liberto, for CNN Money: Credit card laws working, says bank critic
A year after new credit card laws curbed interest rate hikes and forced new disclosures, consumers are paying fewer late fees and have a better understanding of what their cards cost, according to a federal study released Tuesday.
White House official Elizabeth Warren, best known for her outspoken criticism of the banking industry, is expected to praise that same group during a Tuesday conference on the one-year anniversary of the credit card laws….
Now unless I’m mistaken, what banks are being force to disclose is stuff that would previously likely have been buried in the notorious ‘fine print’ of credit card agreements. And fine print is a hard problem, ethically. We all know that consumers should read the fine print; there can be important information there. But we also all know that almost nobody does read the fine print. Fairness requires at least some attention to what we can reasonably expect consumers to do. But on the other hand, is it really a bank’s fault if they disclose something important and you simply don’t bother to read it? While you could argue the fairness point back and forth, it’s also worth pointing out that there’s an economic efficiency argument here, too. Information asymmetries are the enemy of economic efficiency. (An “information situation” is any situations in which one party to a transaction understands that transaction much better than the other.) So we have here the foundation for an argument that says that, even if it is fair to expect consumers to read all the fine print, the fact that they do not do so is resulting in socially sub-optimal patterns of purchasing. This means a social reason, not just a paternalistic reason, to want to help consumers by forcing banks to change how it is that they disclose information.
The other interesting aspect of this story has to do with the persuasive force of law. According to Warren, “much of the industry has gone further than the law requires in curbing repricing and overlimit fees.” In other words, this may be a case in which the law not only prescribed a certain set of behaviours, but also set the tone for the industry. I think this aspect of law is too often overlooked. This suggests that even when we are skeptical about a new law because, for instance, we are skeptical about the potential for strict enforcement, we ought to consider the possibility that an industry will take the passage of a law as sending a signal about the overall tenor of society’s perspective on their business. We also ought to consider also the possibility that the law will give those subject to it an excuse to do what they thought they ought to be doing in the first place.