Gary Leff is right that a ban on usury will make his scam harder to run. But should you care?

There was an interesting scrum this week as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced bills to place a cap on the interest rates charged by revolving credit facilities like credit cards and short-term “payday” loans.

Long-time reader and blog subscriber JC asked me to respond to Gary Leff’s take on the possible implications of such a law for travel hackers, and I’m happy to take the chance to revise and expand my response to him here.

Three channels a federal interest rate cap would operate through

If the federal government banned consumer interest rates above 15%, you’d see a few direct and indirect effects immediately:

  • Interest rates would be capped at 15%. Economists and pundits are eager to rush to second- and third-order effects, but I prefer to linger on first-order effects: a law banning interest rates above 15% will eliminate interest rates above 15%. The law might be well-drafted to create sufficient enforcement and penalties, or it might be poorly-drafted and allow loopholes and exceptions, and of course it might be shredded entirely once our amateur judiciary gets done with it, but there’s no obvious reason to believe a law capping interest rates at 15% wouldn’t succeed in capping interest rates at 15%.

  • Access to credit would be limited. It’s worth looking at this process in detail. The simplistic version would be that everyone who currently has an interest rate below 15% would be left alone, since the lender’s credit algorithm has determined that a sub-15% interest rate is appropriate for their risk profile, while everyone with an interest rate above 15% would be cut off completely. But this isn’t right: credit scores and credit profiles just aren’t accurate enough to make sure every single borrower has “exactly the right interest rate.” Instead, lenders know that some 14.5% borrowers are “really” 15.5% borrowers, and some 15.5% borrowers are “really” 14.5% borrowers. When you can’t overcharge good credit risks, but have to continue undercharging bad credit risks, your overall willingness to extend credit will fall. In some cases that will mean cutting borrowers off entirely, and in other cases simply reducing their credit lines to amounts the lender can live with under conditions of uncertainty.

  • The rewards ecosystem would be completely changed. Today, high interest rates and easy access to credit (which go hand-in-hand) have created an enormous pool of profits that banks and loyalty programs fight over good-naturedly. Sometimes a bank will bail an airline out of bankruptcy by buying a billion miles up front, and sometimes an airline will twist a bank’s arm to squeeze out a slightly higher revenue-sharing rate, but at the end of the day, there’s plenty of profits to go around. A smaller (reduced access to credit), less profitable (lower interest rates) industry would by definition have less money to fight over. That would likely mean consolidated credit card portfolios (one or two Marriott Bonvoy cards instead of 9), reduced signup bonuses, closer scrutiny of manufactured spend, and of course lower referral and affiliate payouts.

A transformed credit card industry would definitely hurt Gary Leff. What about you?

A consumer lending industry that had been “right-sized” (no doubt through several years of painful adjustments) around a 15% interest rate cap would almost certainly make it hard for Gary to make as much money as he does today selling credit cards to gullible newbies, for the mechanical reason that he’s paid for credit card approvals. Even if affiliate payouts remained the same on a per-approval basis, a 25% drop in credit card approvals due to tougher underwriting would represent a 25% drop in revenue. If affiliate payouts also dropped due to the industry’s lower profitability, he’d be slammed twice, with lower approval rates and lower payouts per approval.

But how would a transformed credit card industry affect you? It’s a very different question. Personally, in the last 5 years I’ve migrated almost entirely into fixed-value currencies like US Bank Flexpoints and Chase Ultimate Rewards to book my flights because of the difficulty finding award space. High revenue passenger loads account for part of that problem, but I assume flooding the world with cheap miles accounts for part of it as well. A world with a permanently lower rate of miles being awarded each year seems naturally like a world with more award availability and less pressure on airlines to inflate away the value of their miles.

Won’t somebody think of the poor?

It’s naturally a tad revolting to respond to a libertarian maniac like Gary’s “concern for the poor” because it’s being made in such obviously bad faith, but I don’t want anyone to walk away from his post concluding there are “good arguments on both sides.”

The poor need money, not credit. High interest rates reduce the amount of money the poor have. Easy access to high-interest debt reduces the amount of money the poor have. Emergency medical bills reduce the amount of money the poor have. No-cause eviction reduces the amount of money the poor have. Universal health insurance, affordable housing, free public transit, paid family and medical leave, universal pre-kindergarten, tuition-free higher education, and generous universal public pensions are how you help the poor, if you’re so inclined (I am not aware of any evidence Gary is so inclined).

If you want to help the poor, you need to increase the amount of money they have, not the amount of debt they have.

But Gary Leff is obviously paid to see it otherwise.