The John M. Olin Center

Paper Abstract

Untitled Document

78. Natasha Sarin, The Salience Theory of Consumer Financial Regulation, 06/2018.

Abstract: This Article focuses on recent regulatory interventions in the consumer finance space and considers three interventions to lower prices: a decrease in merchant interchange costs, a cap on credit card penalty fees and interest-rate hikes, and a change to the policy default rule that limited banks’ overdraft revenue. The varied efficacies of these interventions suggest several insights for policymakers. First, consumers are attentive only to fees that are salient to them (such as introductory interest rates on credit cards) and tend to ignore non-salient prices (such as late fees or overdraft charges). The existence of non-salient fees suggests a behavioral market failure that warrants regulatory correction. This is true even in a perfectly competitive world, because the existence of shrouded prices can lead to excessive demand for consumer financial products, cause consumers to expend tremendous energy to avoid hidden fees, and result in cross-subsidy of sophisticated consumers, who incorporate these prices into their decision-making, by unsophisticated customers, who do not. In an imperfectly competitive world, price regulations that target non-salient prices can also decrease overall consumer costs. An alternative to price regulation is the use of behavioral tools, such as policy defaults and shocks to consumer attention, to encourage consumers to take non-salient prices into account. Finally, regulations directly lowering consumer costs--rather than decreasing merchant costs in hopes these savings will pass through--are most likely to result in immediate consumer benefit.