The payday-loan business was in decline. Regulators were circling, storefronts were vanishing and investors were abandoning the industry’s biggest companies en masse.
And yet today, just a few years later, many of the same subprime lenders that specialized in the debt are promoting an almost equally onerous type of credit.
It’s called the online installment loan, a form of debt with much longer maturities but often the same sort of crippling, triple-digit interest rates. If the payday loan’s target audience is the nation’s poor, then the installment loan is geared to all those working-class Americans who have seen their wages stagnate and unpaid bills pile up in the years since the Great Recession.
In just a span of five years, online installment loans have gone from being a relatively niche offering to a red-hot industry. Non-prime borrowers now collectively owe about $50 billion on installment products, according to credit reporting firm TransUnion. In the process, they’re helping transform the way that a large swathe of the country accesses debt. And they have done so without attracting the kind of public and regulatory backlash that hounded the payday loan.
In the decade through 2018, average household incomes for those with a high school diploma have risen about 15%, to roughly $46,000, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data available.
Not only is that less than the 20% increase registered on a broad basket of goods over the span, but key costs that play an outsize role in middle-class budgets have increased much more: home prices are up 26%, medical care 33%, and college costs a whopping 45%.
To keep up, Americans borrowed. A lot. Unsecured personal loans, as well as mortgage, auto, credit-card and student debt have all steadily climbed over the span.
For many payday lenders staring at encroaching regulatory restrictions and accusations of predatory lending, the working class’s growing need for credit was an opportunity to reinvent themselves.
Enter the online installment loan, aimed in part at a fast expanding group of ‘near-prime’ borrowers — those with bad, but not terrible, credit — with limited access to traditional banking options.
Ranging anywhere from $100 to $10,000 or more, they quickly became so popular that many alternative credit providers soon began generating the bulk of their revenue from installment rather than payday loans.
Yet the shift came with a major consequence for borrowers. By changing how customers repaid their debts, subprime lenders were able to partly circumvent growing regulatory efforts intended to prevent families from falling into debt traps built on exorbitant fees and endless renewals.
Whereas payday loans are typically paid back in one lump sum and in a matter of weeks, terms on installment loans can range anywhere from 4 to 60 months, ostensibly allowing borrowers to take on larger amounts of personal debt.
“The benefit of installments loans is you have more time to make the payments; the downside is the payments on these high-cost loans go exclusively towards the interest, possibly for up to the first 18 months,” the National Consumer Law Center’s Saunders said.
The industry, for its part, argues that just as with payday loans, higher interest rates are needed to counter the fact that non-prime consumers are more likely to default.
Between Enova and rival online lender Elevate Credit Inc., write offs for installment loans in the first half of the year averaged about 12% of the total outstanding, well above the 3.6% of the credit card industry.
The surging popularity of online installment loans, combined with a growing ability to tap into big data to better screen customers, has helped boost the fortunes of many subprime lenders.
Subprime installment loans are now being bundled into securities for sale to bond investors, providing issuers an even lower cost of capital and expanded investor base. Earlier this month Enova priced its second-ever term securitization backed by NetCredit loans. The deal paid buyers yields between 4% and 7.75%. Its debut asset-backed security issued a year ago contained loans with annual interest rates as high as 100%.
The bulk of their growth has been fueled by the middle class.
About 45% of online installment borrowers in 2018 reported annual income over $40,000, according to data from Experian Plc unit Clarity Services, based on a study sample of more than 350 million consumer loan applications and 25 million loans over the period. Roughly 15% have annual incomes between $50,000 and $60,000, and around 13% have incomes above $60,000.
For Tiffany Poole, a personal bankruptcy lawyer at Poole, Mensinger, Cutrona & Ellsworth-Aults in Wilmington, Delaware, middle America’s growing dependency on credit has fueled a marked shift in the types of clients who come through her door.
“When I first started, most filings were from the lower class, but now I have people who are middle class and upper-middle class, and the debts are getting larger,” said Poole, who’s been practicing law for two decades. “Generally the debtors have more than one of these loans listed as creditors.”