Time to get out of the water

Web stats highlight growing demand for payday loans

For a newly elected MP, Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy can take a bow. The campaign she has led against payday loans has been pretty effective.

The latest, in case you missed it, is that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is to investigate 50 UK payday lenders amid concerns that some firms are taking advantage of vulnerable consumers.

The scale and continuing growth of the payday loans sector – or as Creasy would call it, the legal loan shark industry – is a worrying sign of the times.

In February, the Coop Bank found that 5 per cent of the British population accumulated debt in 2011 due to payday loans.

That figure is already out of date.

A report recently released by Greenlight, the leading independent digital marketing agency, provides further evidence of the growing size of the payday loan industry.

In January, UK consumers made a total of 2.5m online searches for retail banking-related products.

Loans accounted for the majority (37 per cent) of searches (934,234) with the keywords ‘Loans’, ‘Payday loans’ and ‘Student loans’ being the top three terms consumers used to conduct their searches.

Specfically, the search term ‘payday loans’ accounted for 165,000 or 7 per cent of all retail banking searches in January.

By contrast, searches for the terms ‘credit cards’ and ‘mortgages’ each scored a mere 4 per cent of all searches.

So, just to labour the point, almost as many searches were conducted for payday loans as for searches for credit cards and mortgages, combined.

The Greenlight research also flags up conclusively just how aggressive and digital-savvy the payday loans sector has become.

MoneySupermarket.com is the most visible online retail banking-related online advertiser, achieving a 71 per cent share of voice through bidding on 25 keywords, at an average ad position of four. That finding comes as no surprise and is not exactly a cause for concern.

And the second most visible online banking advertiser? Step forward Wonga, with a 33 per cent share of visibility through bidding on four keywords.

Its payday rival QuickQuid displayed the most visible ad creatives of any advertiser (equal with Tesco Bank) while the top 10 also featured ww.minicredit.co.uk and www.paydayuk.co.uk.

If you think that it is bad in the UK, it is arguably worse in the US.

In the US, the numbers are staggering with an estimated 12m Americans annually caught in long-term debt from payday loans, according to non-profit research and policy organisation, the Centre for Responsible Lending. In contrast to the position in the UK, a number of leading US retail banks have jumped onto the bandwagon and are offering a range of payday loan products.

Wells Fargo, Regions Financial, US Bank and Fifth Third are just some of the largest US retail banks to offer payday loans.

It will be a brave –or rather foolish - UK retail bank which looks to follow their lead with such a product launch.

Meantime, pending the OFT investigation being concluded, one would hope that the payday loans sector might have the commercial and political savvy to clean up their act.

They could, for example, take steps to ensure that customers are not trapped into a cycle of debt by ending the rolling over of payday loans; they could consider the radical step of self-regulation by getting by on less than the APRs of, say the 4,214 per cent charged by www.wonga.com

Then again, pigs might fly.

The chances are that this is one area of retail banking where we might witness something approaching a consensus: that it is an area overdue for regulation.

That would be a right result for the new girl in the House from Walthamstow.

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Getty Images.
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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.