The Origins of
The Consumer Financial
Protection Bureau
Over the years, I had heard a lot of stories from people in bankruptcy. The stories so often started with something unexpected and sad. A job that was going great --- until the pink slip arrived. A beloved wife --- lost to cancer. An aging father --- who broke his hip, forcing his daughter to cut back on her hours at work.

And then, more often than not, the story would take a turn that would make me furious --- blood-boiling furious. Because then, just when a family was down on its luck, some giant financial company would come along and make things worse.

Sometimes the lenders lied. Sometimes they cheated. Sometimes they baited a trap. And sometimes, even when the target figured it out, the lender just brazened it out.

I remember a guy (I'll call him Jason to protect his privacy) who lived on the edge of a small southern town with his wife and stepson. As Jason told the story, he had lost his job, but after a few months of searching he had found a new one, working at a warehouse about forty miles from home. Meanwhile, he had racked up some debt. He owed on his credit card, and he had borrowed money from his brother-in-law (which he found mortifying, and he planned to pay him back as soon as possible). But now that he had a new job, Jason figured he was on his way to getting back on his feet.

His pickup was a gas-guzzler and it had broken down a few times, so he decided to trade it in for something a little smaller and more reliable for his long commute. One Saturday, he drove to one of the big car dealers that advertised heavily on the radio. He kicked a few tires, thought long and hard about which car would suit his needs, and finally settled on a two-year-old Ford Taurus. He haggled on the price, arranged for the trade-in, and drove home in his new car, feeling pretty good about his decision. He hadn't exactly wanted to make the change, but he felt responsible, like he was getting his life back on track.

Several days later, the phone rang. It was the car dealer: there was a problem. When ]ason had come to the car lot, the dealer had offered him a 4 percent interest rate, but the man on the phone explained that this was just a preliminary offer. The actual rate was higher --- more than five times higher, according to Jason --- than the preliminary rate, so the monthly car payment would be $105 higher than the dealer originally estimated. Jason panicked. The new job didn't pay as much as his old one, taxes were chewing up more of his paycheck than he had planned, and he needed to watch every nickel. He didn't have an extra $105 each month. He told them to call it off. He would return the Taurus and take back his pickup.

No dice. Th.y had already sold his pickup. Jason could either take the car dealer's terms or he could return the Taurus and walk. Literally. And it was all perfectly legal. Somewhere in the fine print, the rate on his car loan was marked "preliminary." No one was obligated to spell out what that meant, and what it meant was: "Preliminary means that after you buy the car we can increase your monthly rate by $105, just because we want to."

I knew there were millions more people like Jason. He got in trouble with his car loan, but it happened with all kinds of financial products. Big banks across the country had been sneaking in ways to charge sky-high fees for bounced checks. Payday lenders would charge upward of 400 per- cent effective interest-rates that would make Tony Soprano blush.

And then there were the credit card companies. Their shifting payment dates. Their sudden interest rate hikes. And their torrent of fees --- late fees, over-the-limit fees, just-because-it's-Tuesday fees. The language was convoluted, and the cross-references and defined terms made it unreadable. Let me put it this way: I'd taught contract law for more than twenty years, and I couldn't understand some of those contracts. How many people who were busy trying to get dinner on the table and check the kids' homework had a chance to wind through this kind of legalistic wiring diagram? Not many.

So why not put a cop on the beat? Why not create an agency to put a stop to all these shenanigans? We could put some commonsense rules in place and force the industry to use plain English to explain what the products really do. No cheating anywhere --- not credit cards, not mortgages, not payday loans or student loans.

The idea was to keep Jason and millions of people like him from getting ripped off.

---From A Fighting Chance
Elizabeth Warren
©2014 Metropolitan Books
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH