This tax season one of the largest tax preparation sites, H&R Block, will not be offering refund anticipation loans (RALs) thanks to the Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). The OCC has prohibited H&R Block’s financial partner, HSBC Bank, from funding any RALs whatsoever.
H&R Block was the leader in providing these loans, and in 2010 H&R Block collected about $146 million in loan related fees from tax payers. Until recently HSBC Bank has been the financial backer for the H&R Block RALs. In August of last year, however, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that it would no longer provide tax preparers and associated financial institutions with the “debt indicator,” which is used to underwrite RALs. As a result, HSBC, which began exiting the RAL business in 2007, attempted to break its long-term 2005 contract with H&R Block, its only remaining RAL customer.
H&R Block, on the other hand, contended that RALs can be done without the IRS debt indicator and filed suit against HSBC seeking to require the bank to perform its contractual obligations. Although the parties reached an agreement wherein HSBC would provide the loans for one more year, the OCC intervened and issued a regulatory directive prohibiting HSBC from funding the loans, leaving H&R Block with no financial partner to provide both RALs and some of its refund anticipation checks, "RACs." H&R Block shares also went down 7% as a result of this news.
Last tax season, H&R Block’s main competitor, Jackson Hewitt, lost its main RAL partner when Santa Barbara Bank & Trust was ordered by banking regulators to exit the RAL market. That left Jackson Hewitt scrambling to find another banking partner. In December 2010, Jackson Hewitt reached agreement with Republic Bank & Trust Co., a unit of Republic Bancorp Inc. to back some, but not all, of its RAL program. Upon this announcement Jackson Hewitt shares went up 35%.
H&R Block will continue to offer RACs which, though not an instant refund, provide a check to the tax filer in 7 to 10 days. In the meantime, its competitor, Jackson Hewitt, will be seeking to lure former H&R Block customers away.
As discussed in previous Shriver blogs, this is just the latest RAL repercussion. It seems that consumer advocates’ and financial regulators’ continual push for stricter guidelines and policies regarding RALs have paid off. Today, with quick turnaround from electronic filing and direct deposit, many taxpayers can likely receive their tax returns within ten business days, reducing the need for RALs. Now is the time to demand that the OCC protect low=income families and prohibit all RALs.
This article was coauthored by Kelly Ward.