Real-time access to credit bureau information has reduced the time required to approve a loan from a few weeks to just a few minutes. But credit bureaus have also been criticized for furnishing erroneous information and for compromising privacy. The result has been 30 years of regulation at the state and federal levels.

This paper describes how the consumer credit reporting industry evolved from a few joint ventures of local retailers around 1900 to a high-technology industry that plays a supporting role in America’s trillion dollar consumer credit market. In many ways the development of the industry reflects the intuition developed in the theoretical literature on information-sharing arrangements. But the story is richer than the models. Credit bureaus have changed as retail and lending markets changed, and the impressive gains in productivity at credit bureaus are the result of their substantial investments in technology.

Credit bureaus obviously benefit when their data are more reliable, but should we expect them to attain the socially efficient degree of accuracy? There are plausible reasons to think not, and this is the principal economic rationale for regulating the industry. An examination of the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act reveals an attempt to attain an appropriate economic balancing of the benefits of a voluntary information sharing arrangement against the cost of any resulting mistakes. Subsequent litigation and amendments to the act reveal how this balance has evolved over time.