A fight to the death in the world of car dealership

Personal loans vs dealer finance.

In a previous post, I expressed bafflement at an article warning car buyers to be wary of expensive finance arranged on the forecourt, at a time when all sorts of wonderfully inexpensive personal loan rates were apparently on offer from high street lenders.

I was baffled because half the “pricey” dealer finance providers the article was warning consumers about are owned by the same banks as the personal loans providers in any case, and because the other half are bankrolled by car manufacturers offering hugely subsidised interest rates that no sane bank would compete with.

I went on at some length about all this (I’m from the trade press… we don’t get out much), but the upshot was that, looking at the way the car finance business works, the assertion that customers should beware of forecourt finance is dubious at best. 

Of course, there’s a lot more to consider than just price when weighing up the pros and cons of two completely different financial products, but let’s face it - it’s price that matters when it comes to consumer judgement. So let’s settle this with numbers.

On the personal loan side of things, Bank of England data shows that the typical cost of a £5,000 loan has steadily risen every month for the last five years, from an average rate of 8.7 per cent in March 2007 to 15.8 per cent in April 2012.

Now, this figure is a mean of all lowest advertised rates in a given month, and does very little to reflect the actual average interest rate of personal loans underwritten in a given month.

And to be fair to the loan providers, there has been a hard core of aggressive players, supermarket players M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco among them, pushing in the opposite direction over the same period. In May, we tracked no less than seven lenders duking it out between 6.0 per cent and 6.3 per cent (for a theoretical loan of £8,500 over 4 years). But overall, this action has been drowned out in the Bank of England stats by the mass of more cautious lenders in the UK.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in the world of forecourt finance. As I have already alluded to, more than 50 per cent of all finance deals offered each month are subsidised by manufacturers, dropping them way beyond the competitive reach of the loan providers. Include deals where discounts or freebies are offered in terms of maintenance, service and the like, and you’re looking at 80 percent of all new car finance.

As for the remainder, a quick phone round all the big providers (who are, you will remember, major banks) confirmed that their average APR on deals actually offered to consumers currently varies between 8 per cent and 10 per cent.

OK, sure. This doesn’t look too hot compared to those 6 per cent deals from the high street. But let’s not forget that those figures are “representative” APRs: since the actual rate offered by a lender tends to vary hugely depending on a customer’s credit rating, they can only legally advertise a rate achievable by at least 51 per cent of applicants. Put it another way, and 49 per cent of borrowers end up paying a higher rate.

So: half of applicants to the most competitive loan providers are probably getting a cheaper deal than between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of new car finance applicants, to the tune of 2-4 per cent in interest rate terms. I’ll admit that there’s a certain amount of beermat mathematics involved in working this out, but the conclusion is clear: there’s not much in it.   

In all of this (and I promise I’ll talk about something different now), we’ve just been talking about the new car finance market, and customers with good enough credit ratings to be considered by the manufacturer captives and supermarket loan providers in the first place.

Next time, I’ll look at the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been completely unable to find a way to finance a car purchase since 2008, and what on earth the industry is planning to do with them. Now that’s a struggle.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder