Saturday, July 26, 2008

Amanda in the NY Times: A Conflict that Came in the Mail

Spouses are always doing little things "for each other's good." In the past I may have taken it upon myself to retire some of my husband's more-than-gently-worn socks (to all the TSA agents who were privy to the site of his big toe poking through in the security line: you're welcome).

MP Dunleavey writes in her Cost of Living column for the New York Times about another case of marital editing, this one having to do with catalogs that (did not quite) arrive in the mail.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Reading, Writing, and Relevant Cost?

As a high school student, I never learned economics -- home, macro, or otherwise. Interestingly enough I went to a math and science-focused magnet school, so I was better prepared to handle infinitesimals than interest rates.

In fact, my personal finance education started right about the time I walked into mu college bookstore to buy my textbooks and was handed a Visa application. Fast forward a few years and I was the proud carrier of about 10 platinum cards and a whopping amount of gut-churning, insomnia-producing debt.

I learned most of my early economic lessons the hard way - by mistake.

Unfortunately it seems that my learning experience is the norm. In today's New York Times Freakonomics blog Stephen Dubner asks, “Are We a Nation of Financial Illiterates?” The sad answer is probably yes. And Stephen turns to Annamaria Lusardi, a professor of economics at Dartmouth, who has some answers that make sense.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Your Creditor is Silently Judging You

You stay below your credit limit, pay your bills on time, and always pay more than the minimum balance due. Yet your creditor mysteriously raises your interest rate and cuts your credit line in half. What gives? Maybe it was because you swiped your card at the bar or at a massage parlor, and the lender's scoring model deemed your purchasing behavior a credit risk.

Lenders, insurers, other financial firms (and, increasingly employers, landlords, cell phone carriers, and the voting public) have always used credit scoring models to make decisions about people. While we have some very general information about the design of the most widely-used models, many lenders use proprietary formulas based on their own evaluative criteria. In the case of CompuCredit's Aspire Visa, these criteria allegedly included individual spending behavior.

The Federal Trade Commission recently filed suit against CompuCredit accusing them of "deceptive" marketing practices because they did not properly disclose to consumers that they monitored spending. The suit alleges that when the cards were used at places like tire and retreading shops, massage parlors, bars, billiard halls, and marriage counselors (really? marriage counselors?), CompuCredit cut their credit lines.

Now keep in mind, the legal issue here is not that a lender monitored purchasing behavior and used it to evaluate the terms of credit. The legal issue is that the lender did not properly communicate the policy to cardholders.

But the relevance to consumers is far broader, because this suit gives us a glimpse into the heretofore secret world of credit scoring. Consumer advocates have long suspected that purchasing behavior is included in scoring models but because the models were protected as intellectual property there was no way of knowing for certain. As Jennifer Silver-Greenberg writes in BusinessWeek:

With competition increasing, databases improving, and technology advancing, companies can include more factors than ever in their models.... The worry is that companies may tweak the credit scoring system in unfair or biased ways, weeding out or limiting borrowers based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Personally, and this is my opinion here, I would say of course creditors are monitoring purchasing behavior. If they can do it, they are doing it. It's simple human nature to want to know things about others, and creditors are not any purer than the rest of us. They have the additional incentive of being in business with their customers, so if the mechanism exists for them to gather the information then I think we can safely assume that they will do so.

The concern is not that financial institutions are gathering the information, the concern is in how they are evaluating it. "Scoring model" sounds analytical, but in reality all models that evaluate data are exactly as biased as the person or people developing them.

Models are, in effect, hypotheses. You come up with a hypothesis, you enter the data, and you discover if the data predicts the outcome that you are expecting. If it does then you consider the hypothesis valid. It's reliable if it gives the same valid outcome again and again.

The problem with the credit scoring model is that it's only being selectively tested and only by the same biased people who developed it. In the natural and social sciences we cannot say, "Hey, psychotherapy and antidepressants are more effective in treating depression than psychotherapy alone. Don't ask me how I know this, just buy my medicine." The scientific method dictates that we present all of it -- our hypothesis, subject selection, testing process, data gathering, analysis -- and encourage others to try exactly what we did and produce the same results.

People might not be so outraged about creditors analyzing purchasing behavior if we were allowed to shine the light of public scrutiny on their scoring model.

This particular instance with the Aspire Visa also just smacks of moralism. Why is using your credit card at a bar or marriage counselor so bad? What about people who use a credit card "convenience check" to pay their rent -- that seems more indicative of financial instability than a night out at the pub. We can't ask the lender these questions because their process is protected.

In our complex financial world, selectively directing the quality and availability of credit products has profound social consequences. We've already seen how institutions were able to perpetrate bias (consciously or unconsciously) in the subprime lending market. With credit so interwoven into the social fabric, do we have a right to public oversight of how lenders make their decisions?