Can Consumer Law Solve the Problem of Complexity in U.S. Consumer Credit Products?

27 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2014 Last revised: 23 Nov 2014

Date Written: November 1, 2014


People like to know and understand the total cost of credit products they are considering. They also like to know and understand products’ terms and features. Given these preferences, issuers of credit should market products with transparent features and simple pricing. That is not the case. In fact, over the last few decades we have seen a plethora of complex terms in products such as mortgage loans, credit cards, and prepaid debit cards. As credit products have become ever more complex, consumers have more choices and can select products that satisfy their particular needs and preferences. No longer are borrowers limited to a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. If they know they will be moving in a few years, a 3-year fixed-rate mortgage with a low interest rate that converts to a 27-year adjustable rate mortgage based on the LIBOR might be the right product for them. However, for borrowers who do not understand the complexities of a 3-27 mortgage loan, the low, initial interest rate could be a costly lure. Confusion is commonplace. In one study giving consumers a choice between two credit cards that varied only in terms of the annual fee and the interest rate, forty percent of the participants chose the more expensive card.

One would expect that consumers, who cannot decipher terms and calculate the cost of complex products, would turn to those with easy-to-understand terms. There are some simple products on the market. Instead, consumers often misperceive that the more complex products are less expensive than the simple ones. They, thus, shun the products that would be in their best interest.

In this paper, I explain why borrowers make sub-optimal choices when selecting credit products. I then analyze whether extant laws could be used to address obfuscating complexity. I ultimately conclude that policy-makers should look to extra-legal remedies to protect consumers against exploitative complexity.

Suggested Citation

Engel, Kathleen, Can Consumer Law Solve the Problem of Complexity in U.S. Consumer Credit Products? (November 1, 2014). Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 14-34, Available at SSRN: or

Kathleen Engel (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States
617-994-6831 (Phone)


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