Black Boxes Bite Back

blackbox.jpgAs interest rates jump, piggybacking has become all the rage in “credit repair” circles. For a fee, groups like Instant Credit Builders will let you “borrow” (part of) another person’s credit score by becoming an “authorized borrower” on his cards. Here is ICB’s overheated defense of the practice:

ICB has developed a system to counter the harmful societal impacts of an emerging market called “subprime lending”. Mob-like blood suckers under the umbrella of legitimate lending institutions are targeting those who have poor credit scores but fall short of being beyond credit risk acceptance.

To explain why subprime lenders are in such an opportunistic industry, take this example: The commission payable to a financial adviser or mortgage broker from an actual prime lender on a $100,000 deal yields a broker about $250. Yet the same $100,000 deal using a subprime lender yields them $2,000 to $2,500. This niche market banking industry is getting paid well to enslave most minorities, low-income borrowers, even victims of identity theft with interest rates that can be up to 3.5% higher than average.

Needless to say, mortgage lenders are hoppin’ mad. The godfather of credit scores, FICO, has claimed that “piggy-backing will soon come to an end on its watch.” One irony here is that, as lenders crack down, “they may actually increase demand for some of the services that these Web sites offer.”

A lot of the commentary on these sites has been harsh, but let me offer something like an “unclean hands” defense. Credit scores have long come under attack for having a “a disparate impact on poor and minority populations.” Moreover, the scoring is opaque; scorers claim that transparency would undermine their “trade secrets.” So consumers are navigating a world where they can have only a vague idea of the rules. Lenders shouldn’t be surprised when entrepreneurs reverse-engineer the ratings system and the technology bites back.

Moreover, these rules themselves may be self-fulfilling prophecies: if you decree that one missed $10 payment for a family of 4 earning $30,000 per year lowers their credit score by 200 points, they probably are going to end up being more likely to default because they are going to be paying much more in interest for any financing they get. Again, because the scores are black boxes, we have no assurance that the companies that offer them try to eliminate such endogenicity or whether they actually try to profit from such self-fulfilling prophecies.

As long as credit ratings are so shrouded in secrecy, the lenders who rely on them should expect gaming of the system. Watch for a debate over “black hat” vs. “white hat” credit repair builders as controversial (and interminable) as that now occurring in the world of search engine optimization.

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