The companies that gather information on U.S. consumers' creditworthiness haven't exactly covered themselves in glory of late. After losing the personal data of millions of Americans who never chose to do business with them, committing innumerable life-complicating errors and exploiting consumers' fear of identity theft, they find themselves among the country's most disliked enterprises.
So it's understandable that some people (most notably, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) are pushing for a radical response: Nationalize the business.
Credit reporting has a crucial role. It allows consumers to quickly and easily access a broad range of services, including bank accounts, loans and mobile-phone service. The trouble is, the credit bureaus get most of their revenue from businesses looking to assess potential customers, not from the people whose data they collect and sell. This gives them too little incentive to serve the latter — for example, by investing in the staff and systems needed to quickly resolve disputes or protect personal data.
The 2017 data breach at Equifax Inc., which exposed the personal information of more than 145 million people, illustrates the problem perfectly. The company responded with a dysfunctional website and an offer of "free" credit monitoring, useful mainly for learning after the fact that one's identity has been stolen. The industry sought to turn consumers' fears into a profit opportunity, charging an estimated $1.4 billion for security "freezes" — which prevent new accounts from being opened in a person's name — before Congress stepped in to make the freezes free. Undaunted, the companies then sought to steer consumers into paid services such as credit "locks," which are similar to freezes but provide less legal protection.
Policymakers do need to intervene. This year's Equifax settlement, which included only meager compensation (more credit monitoring!) and limited reform, certainly doesn't suffice. Then why not simply shut down the private credit-reporting industry and replace it with a government-run credit registry, housed in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?
A certain kind of government registry might in fact be useful. In Europe, they're common — but they typically work alongside the private credit-reporting companies, monitoring banks and consumer finances for excessive leverage or dangerous concentrations of debt. In the U.S., a properly designed registry could play a similar role, and possibly create some salutary competitive pressure — for example, by offering an alternative to consumers who can't get the private credit bureaus to correct their files.
But simply nationalizing the whole business isn't the answer. Yes, the bureaus strive mainly to serve the businesses that are their primary customers. But those very efforts — for example, developing better models to assess creditworthiness and finding ways to produce credit scores for as many people as possible — can promote the financial inclusion that the bureaus' critics advocate. As anyone who has ever interacted with the Internal Revenue Service knows, the government is unlikely to be better when it comes to customer service. Ditto data security — the IRS has been hacked, too.
A better approach, then, would be to fix the private industry's incentives. Here's how:
Require the credit bureaus to get consumers' permission before disseminating their data. In effect, the security freeze would become the default option, offering people a chance to check and correct their information, and giving the companies a reason to actually help them.
Make the bureaus more responsible for the accuracy of the information they sell. All too often, they merely refer consumers with disputes to the companies from which they collect payment data. Instead, they should help bear the burden of getting it right. Consumers should be able to appeal their decisions, and if the bureaus can't vouch for their findings, they should take them down.
Set higher technical requirements for data accuracy, privacy and security. In the realm of security, for example, both the government and nonprofit organizations have established standards that regulators could use to assess quality and compliance.
Empower consumers to obtain injunctive relief when suing the credit bureaus. This would allow courts to compel the companies and their data furnishers to fix their bad information, rather than merely imposing financial penalties.
Legislators have drafted bills that would make many of these changes. If the credit-reporting bureaus want to head off the threat of nationalization, they should welcome such reasonable reforms and get on with regaining the trust of the people whose data they manage.
This editorial is the opinion of the Bloomberg Opinion's editorial board.