The economic cataclysm brought on by the coronavirus caught American consumers in an extremely precarious position — one that was evident well before more than 50 million people filed for unemployment. By the end of last year, Americans had racked up nearly $4.2 trillion in consumer debt, not including mortgage debt — a record high. The greatest contributor to this surge was not credit card spending or student debt or auto loans, but something newer and, for many borrowers, even riskier: high-interest personal loans, increasingly offered by online financial technology companies known as “fintechs.”
These fintech firms have eclipsed banks and other traditional credit suppliers to become the nation’s No. 1 source of personal loans — the kind of loans people take out when they need extra cash to stay afloat, or when they have already amassed large amounts of debt and are looking to refinance. At the end of 2019, an unprecedented 20.8 million Americans owed money on at least one personal loan — more than one-third of which came from a fintech company.
This surge in fintech lending may have dire consequences for American consumers. Just as financial engineering by Wall Street banks fueled unsustainable consumer borrowing in the 2000s, online fintech companies’ quest to squeeze more debt out of borrowers through loans signed via a few clicks on screens has helped set the stage for a new consumer financial crisis today, an investigation by The Intercept and Type Investigations reveals.
Such borrowing might provide short-term relief to some Americans. And, in light of the current crisis, some fintech firms are working with borrowers to defer payments temporarily. But ultimately, the surge of fintech lending in recent years will likely result in a massive wave of loan defaults over the coming months, as borrowers burn through enhanced unemployment benefits, which have been reduced since the end of July, and the stimulus payments that the federal government began sending out in April. The resulting spike in defaults will be catastrophic for consumer credit.