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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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.