New York's Department of Financial Services says Apple Card program didn't violate fair lending laws

Sarah Perez
·6-min read

The New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) released a report today that cleared the Apple Card credit card program of discriminatory practices and specifically, gender-based discrimination, following an investigation triggered by online complaints back in November 2019. At the time, tech entrepreneur David Heinemeier Hansson had called out Apple Card program, jointly run by Apple and Goldman Sachs, for gender-based discrimination after he received a credit limit that was 20 times higher than what his wife was offered -- even though the couple filed joint tax returns and his wife had a higher credit score than he did.

Hansson's tweet storm detailing the problem ending up going viral, generating responses from several others, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who claimed they had similar experiences when applying for the Apple Card with their partners.

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David's wife, Jamie Heinemeier Hansson, had also penned a blog post documenting her experiences in more detail.

The numerous consumer complaints soon drew the attention of the New York Department of Financial Services, which then launched an investigation into Goldman Sachs' credit card practices in order to see if gender-based discrimination was taking place, as alleged.

The NYDFS report, first spotted today by Appleinsider, notes that Goldman Sachs re-reviewed the credit files of the some of the women who had been initially been offered dramatically lower credit scores than their spouses, and decided to raise their limits to match those of their spouses. At the time, the bank also eliminated the six-month waiting period for appeals on credit decisions.

These actions seemed to indicate that the Apple Card algorithms were making bad calls on credit worthiness, potentially even on the basis of gender; but the Department says that's not the case -- though it did stress the need or credit score reforms and updating existing laws around credit access.

The NYDFS said it reviewed several thousands pages of record and written responses from Apple and Goldman Sachs, interviewed witnesses, met with representatives from Apple and the bank, and analyzed the bank's underwriting data using a data set covering nearly 400,000 New York applicants. It also interviewed the consumers who had complained of discrimination.

The Department concluded that there was no "unlawful discrimination" against applicants under fair lending law. However, statements made by the Superintendent of Financial Services Linda A. Lacewell, did stress that there is still discrimination built into the credit lending system itself, and the way credit scores can lead to unequal access to credit.

"While we found no fair lending violations, our inquiry stands as a reminder of disparities in access to credit that continue nearly 50 years after the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) ," Lacewell said. "The report also notes that the use of credit scoring in its current form and laws and regulations barring discrimination in lending are in need of strengthening and modernization to improve access to credit. Consumer frustration with the Apple Card policy of not permitting an account holder to add an authorized user drew attention to the following: a person who relies on a spouse's access to credit, and only accesses those accounts as an authorized user, may incorrectly believe they have the same credit profile as the spouse. This is one part of a broader discussion we must have about equal credit access," she added.

One common factor among the consumers who complained was a belief that a spouse who had access to the same shared bank account or other shared assets, like credit cards -- even if only as authorized users -- would receive the same credit terms as their spouses. But the way the system works today, underwriters don't have to consider an authorized user the same as an account holder, and they may consider other factors, too. Combined, these are what led to the lower lending decisions, the investigation found.

The Department said that, when asked, Goldman Sachs was able to document underwriting that determined its lending decisions for the consumer complaints. Gender was not a factor, but spouses' credit scores, indebtedness, income, credit utilization, missed payments and other credit history elements were. None of the factors identified was an "unlawful basis" for a credit determination, the Department said.

Of course, the credit score system itself is one that overall, favors men. (And specifically, white men). There is no one single reason as to why that's the case, but often has to do with women's role as a primary caregiver, combined with how the credit scoring model operates. This is a system that needs reform, but as it relates to the Apple Card program and discrimination complaints, it was "lawfully" used to make the Apple Card lending decisions.

However, the Department did point out that there was a lack of transparency around Apple Card's lending decisions -- noting that although it was able to obtain the data about the bank's decision for these complaints, the impacted consumers could not. It also suggested Apple could have offered a more robust appeals process, instead of requiring a six-month wait.

Apple has since responded to some of the issues raised, including by launching "Path to Apple Card" last year, which helps applicants follow steps that lead to an Apple Card approval. To date, more than 70K consumers have enrolled in this program and nearly 5,000 have been approved. Apple also updated its website with more information about how Apple Card approvals work. And now it's in the process of adding support for Apple Card family sharing features -- meaning, authorized users. This would address issues around spouses not being able to gain access to the higher credit lending limits at least.

But this investigation highlighted the problems Apple faced by pairing its trusted brand with a credit card issued by a traditional lender and the accompanying crummy banking practices consumers hate, as well as how a lack of transparency had undermined trust in the lending decisions that were made.

Goldman Sachs offered a statement regarding the investigation's findings.

"We appreciate the Department of Financial Services’ thorough investigation and welcome its conclusion of no fair lending violations. We remain committed to providing fair and equal access to credit," the company said.

Reached for comment, Hansson, whose original tweet set this whole investigation into motion, has this to say:

"This read like a press release from Goldman Sachs, and ignores the specific facts in our case. My wife had a HIGHER credit score than I did, yet was determined to be worth a tenth the credit. There’s zero transparency in the credit assessment process, applicants can’t tell why they’re being denied, and Goldman Sachs and Apple employees don’t even seem to know. The algorithmic black box outcomes continue, there’s no possibility of doing audits, and unfair outcomes continue. Total regulatory failure."

3/23/21, 3 pm et Updated with comments after initial publication.