American Banker, February 21, 2018: Mystery shoppers search for signs of discrimination in business lending
If federal regulators are disinclined to monitor banks for discrimination in small-business lending, then community groups such as the National Community Reinvestment Coalition plan to do it for them.
That’s part of the message the NCRC sent this week when it announced that it has secured a $1.2 million grant to probe the small-business lending practices of banks in three yet-to-be-determined U.S. metropolitan areas.
The nonprofit group plans to use mystery shoppers, who will pose as prospective borrowers, to determine whether women and members of minority groups are facing discrimination when they apply for loans.
The research will be funded by W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It follows a pilot study conducted last year that found that white shoppers posing as business owners were three times more likely to be invited for follow-up appointments at banks than their black counterparts and twice as likely to be offered help in completing loan applications.
“We were shocked at the level of different treatment, particularly along racial lines,” said John Taylor, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
The pilot study also found that black shoppers were far more likely than whites to be asked about their marital status, as well as about the employment status of their spouses.
Taylor said that the poorer treatment of black shoppers likely reflects the biases of bank employees. “I doubt it’s a bank policy,” he said. “You’re dealing with human beings.”
The forthcoming study is meant to shed additional light on banks’ practices, but Taylor said that his organization has an obligation to inform the Justice Department if it finds a pattern of discrimination.
He argued that the study will help to fill a void left by the Trump-era Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney recently announced that the Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity will be moved out of the bureau’s enforcement division — a move that critics saw as an effort to defang anti-discrimination efforts.