Monday, March 11, 2019

What the hell? Financing a Harley at 22 percent interest!

Steve Rhode, the Get Out of Debt Guy, answers questions from his blog-site readers about consumer complaints. A few days ago, a woman named Mary wrote Steve about a Harley Davidson motorcycle her husband bought and financed at an interest rate of 22 percent.

Mary asked Steve if it was legal to apply an entire monthly loan payment to interest just because the payment was a few days late. She also asked if her husband could simply return the motorbike.


First of all, he pointed out, most loan payments typically go primarily to interest in the early months of the repayment period. "This is especially true," Mr. Rhode added, "if the outstanding balance includes late fees that get added to the account balance.

Taking the Harley back to the dealer, Mr. Rhode advised, is usually a bad option because a voluntary repossession will lead Mary and her husband with a big bill. The couple could sell the bike but they would need to sell it for at least enough to cover what they owe or come with the difference between the sales price and what they owe. Otherwise, they could not get the title to transfer.

Rhode then went on to estimate what the Harley is going to cost Mary and her husband if they continue with their repayment plan. Assuming, they financed the bike with a 72-month note, monthly payments would be $628 a month for 72 months. When they paid off the note after six years, they would have made payments totally $45,000 to pay off a $25,000 purchase.

Since Mary and her husband seem willing to just to give the bike back to Harley, they obviously realize they made a bad deal. They would have been better off to have saved enough money for a hefty down payment so they could have taken out a smaller loan. And assuming they had good credit, they could have financed the bike with a credit card at a lower rate of interest.

Some people reading Mary's story might conclude that she and her husband made a bad decision and have no one to blame but themselves. But I disagree. In a fairer and more just economy, laws and regulations would have prohibited this very bad transaction.

People forget that not too long ago, states had usury laws that placed strict limits on the interest that could be charged for a consumer transaction. In the state where I practiced law, a statute limited the interest rate to 10.5 percent--less than half the rate that Mary and her husband were charged.

But the banks figured out how to base their operations in states that permitted very high interest rates. Remember sending those credit card payments to South Dakota or Delaware? Then, in 1978, the Supreme Court allowed out-of-state credit card companies to charge interest rates that were higher than the interest rate allowed in their customers' own states. (Pat Curry explains this in a 2010 essay.)

Even student-loan debtors can fall into the trap of paying high interest rates. I've read a couple of recent bankruptcy court decisions in which people refinanced their student loans at 9 percent--a hefty rate indeed when we consider that the interest rate on a 10-year treasury bond is less than 2.7 percent right now.

Tragically, millions of Americans are financing consumer transactions to purchase stuff they don't need or is virtually worthless. This is also true for people who take out student loans to attend for-profit colleges that are not providing students with fair value--or any value at all in many cases.

As the 2020 political season heats up, voters need to ask presidential candidates if they endorse legislation that would effectively regulate consumer transactions and the student-loan industry. If a candidate has nothing to say about the massive exploitation of ordinary Americans by the banks, the student-loan racket, and the consumer-finance industry, voters need to find someone else to vote for.


Photo credit: Harley Davidson

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