Investigative reporter Brian M. Rosenthal and his team from the New York Times have spent over 10 months, interviewed 450 people, built a database of every medallion sale since 1995 and reviewed thousands of individual loans and other documents, including internal bank records and confidential profit-sharing agreements.
The investigation found example after example of drivers trapped in exploitative loans, including hundreds who signed interest-only loans that required them to pay exorbitant fees, forfeit their legal rights and give up almost all their monthly income, indefinitely.
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The phone call that ruined Mohammed Hoque’s life came in April 2014 as he began another long day driving a New York City taxi, a job he had held since emigrating from Bangladesh nine years earlier.
The call came from a prominent businessman who was selling a medallion, the coveted city permit that allows a driver to own a yellow cab instead of working for someone else. If Mr. Hoque gave him $50,000 that day, he promised to arrange a loan for the purchase.
After years chafing under bosses he hated, Mr. Hoque thought his dreams of wealth and independence were coming true. He emptied his bank account, borrowed from friends and hurried to the man’s office in Astoria, Queens. Mr. Hoque handed over a check and received a stack of papers. He signed his name and left, eager to tell his wife. Mr. Hoque made about $30,000 that year. He had no idea, he said later, that he had just signed a contract that required him to pay $1.7 million.
Over the past year, a spate of suicides by taxi drivers in New York City has highlighted in brutal terms the overwhelming debt and financial plight of medallion owners. All along, officials have blamed the crisis on competition from ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft.
But a New York Times investigation found much of the devastation can be traced to a handful of powerful industry leaders who steadily and artificially drove up the price of taxi medallions, creating a bubble that eventually burst. Over more than a decade, they channeled thousands of drivers into reckless loans and extracted hundreds of millions of dollars before the market collapsed.
These business practices generated huge profits for bankers, brokers, lawyers, investors, fleet owners and debt collectors. The leaders of nonprofit credit unions became multimillionaires. Medallion brokers grew rich enough to buy yachts and waterfront properties. One of the most successful bankers hired the rap star Nicki Minaj to perform at a family party.
But the methods stripped immigrant families of their life savings, crushed drivers under debt they could not repay and engulfed an industry that has long defined New York. More than 950 medallion owners have filed for bankruptcy, according to a Times analysis of court records. Thousands more are barely hanging on.
The practices were strikingly similar to those behind the housing market crash that led to the 2008 global economic meltdown: Banks and loosely regulated private lenders wrote risky loans and encouraged frequent refinancing; drivers took on debt they could not afford, under terms they often did not understand.
Some big banks even entered the taxi industry in the aftermath of the housing crash, seeking a new market, with new borrowers.
The combination of easy money, eager borrowers and the lure of a rare asset helped prices soar far above what medallions were really worth. Some industry leaders fed the frenzy by purposefully overpaying for medallions in order to inflate prices, The Times found.
Between 2002 and 2014, the price of a medallion rose to more than $1 million from $200,000, even though city records showed that driver incomes barely changed. About 4,000 drivers bought medallions in that period, records show. They were excited to buy, but they were enticed by a dubious premise. Mohammed Hoque bought his medallion for $1 million in 2014. From 2002 to 2014, taxi industry leaders artificially inflated medallion prices, which helped cause them to quintuple. Medallion prices were relatively stable from 1995 to 2002. Since prices crashed in late 2014, hedge funds have bought hundreds of medallions seized from bankrupt drivers.
“The whole thing was like a Ponzi scheme because it totally depended on the value going up,” said Haywood Miller, a debt specialist who has consulted for both borrowers and lenders. “The part that wasn’t fair was the guy who’s buying is an immigrant, maybe someone who couldn’t speak English. They were conned.”
As in the housing crash, government officials ignored warning signs and exempted lenders from regulations. The city Taxi and Limousine Commission went the furthest of all, turning into a cheerleader for medallion sales. It was tasked with regulating the industry, but as prices skyrocketed, it sold new medallions and began declaring they were “better than the stock market.”
- A valuable piece of tin which kept going up and up and up in value.