CONGRESS IS CONSIDERING legislation to remove the ceiling on interest rates that lenders may charge across the country. The Credit Deregulation and Availability Act of 1981 would overrule all local usury laws in an effort to make it more profitable to lend money, while making more credit available to consumers.
Opponents of the bill don't quite see it that way. Jim Boyle of the Consumer Federation of America told a Senate Banking subcommittee that the bill would eliminate protections against loan sharks for uninformed people and would "cost borrowers billions in additional finance charges, precipitate thousands of new bankruptcies and allow lenders to impose a variety of extra fees that will make comparison shopping for loans difficult, if not impossible."
The most controversial aspect of the measure would remove all local controls on interest rates, late payment penalties and other loan fees. In the District, for example, the law would erase prohibitions against excessive penalties for early repayment of loans. Stanley Silverberg, director of research for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., reports that one-third of the states have recently made substantial increases in their usury rates. But the states, he notes, have generally decided not to do away with all interest rate ceilings. The horror stories cited by opponents of the bill have to do with states that have removed all such ceilings, as in Arizona where they say some used car dealers now offer loans at 50 percent.
These arguments against the credit deregulation bill are really arguments urging consumers to use caution when entering into any loan. They are not arguments for keeping usury rates below the rate of inflation, as they are now in many states. In a national economy, usury rates should be set nationally. To set them state by state is anachronistic. Low usury rates in any one state will simply drive lenders elsewhere and make people go out-of-state to find loans--or go to loan sharks.
Where the deregulation proposal goes wrong is in removing all protections against corrupt charges and fees that can be amended to loans. Legitimate lenders do not benefit from such freedom; it only opens the door to fly-by-night companies that would issue loans with the hope of taking advantage of consumers. Congress must think twice before it legalizes loan sharking. The states, which up to now have been policing the loan business, have an assortment of laws to stop corrupt activity. Congress should look them over before making sweeping changes on credit that go too far to accomplish some good.