Caveat Emptor: No, Really

One of the oldest maxims in commerce is caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. Sadly, this is often interpreted as a condemnation of businessmen, a suggestion that they are out to cheat their customers. But the real wisdom of the phrase is nothing so trite. It commends the buyer to check all aspects of a potential trade to avoid unpleasant surprises. A good translation of the phrase, depending on the context, is: “Read the small print.”This phrase is of particular resonance to me at the moment. After getting stuck with some very high mortgage rates when my wife and I bought our home early last year, we refinanced this year to consolidate our loans. It was important to us to avoid Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI), and the bank we worked with, which has provided excellent service in other areas, assured us that the best loan for us would not include PMI. It didn't — but it included instead a “Low Down Payment Fee,” which we assumed was a one-off payment. As it turned out, this was an ongoing charge that amounted to the same cost as PMI but is actually harder to remove. We had combed the loan documents looking for references to PMI but had not properly read the parts relating to the fee. Caveant emptores; next time we refinance, which will be soon, we shall ensure that a trained professional alerts us to all such clauses in the documents.We learned our lesson. The bank contends that the fee is spelled out in the documents we initialed to signify we had read them. That is true; it's our own fault for not doing our homework. Yet it is telling that our first thought was that the bank might have done something illegal. And there are groups that want to make such loans illegal. But that would be a step too far and disastrous for others worse off than ourselves.A leader in the fight against what it calls “predatory lending” is the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), part of the Self-Help group of non-profits run by Martin Eakes in North Carolina. CRL wants to outlaw all sorts of financial products from the portfolio currently available to the “subprime” market, i.e. those with weak or bad credit. Among those it wants to ban or restrict:* “Predatory” mortgage lending — refinancing loans with extra fees.* Payday lending — lending money against a check postdated to payday.* Overdraft loans — secured overdraft facilities financed by bounced check fees.* Tax Refund Anticipation Loans — lending money against an anticipated tax refund.* Car Title Loans — lending money with the borrower's car title as collateral.* Rent-to-own Contracts — whereby a purchaser takes home an item and buys it on installments, which count as rent until the full purchase and finance charge is paid.Yet all these instruments are valuable to the “subprime” market, which consists mainly of the poor, immigrants like me, and other minorities. Indeed, many of them are standard practice in the United Kingdom. I could not have survived as a student and then struggling civil servant in London without an overdraft facility. Nor could my family have purchased major furniture items or appliances without rent-to-own contracts — known in Britain colloquially as “the Never-Never” (referring to the fact that it seems as if you will never pay them off; but you do).CRL has had some local success in its campaigns. North Carolina has passed a law banning certain “predatory lending” practices. The result was entirely predictable: The poor have been denied access to credit. The Georgetown University Credit Research Center found that, “The number of subprime mortgage originations [has] declined by 14%…Significant declines occurred only in North Carolina and only among lower-income borrowers.”It is ironic that CRL is part of the “Self-Help” group. The best-selling book of that title, written by Samuel Smiles in 1859, says in it opening paragraphs, “In all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct. Hence the value of legislation as an agent in human advancement has usually been much over-estimated.” Yet CRL has recently purchased an office block in Washington for $23 million to move it closer to the federal government. A recent study by the Capital Research Center suggests that the Self-Help group has received large grants from left-leaning groups to pay for its lobbying activities.If CRL were truly committed to the idea of self-help, it would encourage borrowers to recognize their personal responsibility. Instead, it is cutting off sources of credit that have helped many out of poverty and into the middle classes. If as citizens we are consumers of legislation, then in this case we must be especially wary.