Car salesmen - worse than bankers?

Perhaps not.

Bankers take solace; public opinion may have turned against you in the last few years, but you will forever be held in higher regard than car dealers.

That is according to Daily Mail’s online title, which recently published a story warning consumers not to be taken in by “pricey” forecourt car finance at a time when high street lenders were offering personal loans at rates as low as 6 per cent.

The Mail’s warning was prompted by the announcement by the Finance and Leasing Association (FLA) that some 66 per cent of new cars purchased in March - a peak month for motor retail - were bought via dealer finance, a fairly astonishing leap from 54.2 per cent last March.

The article quoted Andrew Hagger of comparison site Moneynet, warning consumers not to get “carried away” by the patter of “smooth-talking car salesmen” and sign up for finance without shopping around for cheaper deals.

But is the rise in dealer finance seen over the last two years due to a sudden influx of brutally persuasive forecourt finance salespeople, or indeed a sudden deterioration in the average UK consumer’s desire to seek out cheaper deals?

Nope. It’s the car manufacturers themselves, and the fact that, in many cases, they are undercutting the banks on price.

The UK new car market, a vital arena for global carmakers, has been having a hard time for a few years now, and is still desperately trying to push back into the two million-units-plus annual sales total enjoyed before the recession.

Manufacturers, engaged in a prolonged battle to keep the metal moving through dealerships and into suburban driveways, have seized any opportunity to incentivise purchases. The scrappage scheme was a temporary panacea, but with that gone, finance has become the weapon of choice.

Low- and even zero-percent interest deals have proliferated in the last two years, and have not only been a large part of the reason for any growth in the UK new car market, but for the ballooning penetration rate of finance into motor retail.

The deals are provided by the vast captive finance houses – essentially pet banks - of the carmakers, and since these are fed directly from the manufacturer balance sheet, any revenue lost in low interest rates is more than mitigated by the revenue contribution of sales made possible through the offering of cheap finance. The captives are, essentially, colossal and extremely well-accounted marketing departments.

If anything, the gradual softening of personal loan rates offered by the high street – a trend which has corresponded chronologically with the rise of dealer finance – could be seen in part as an attempt by banks to compete with the boom in manufacturer offers.

But even taking the auto industry’s mass marketing campaign out of the equation and looking at the deals offered by non-captive finance houses (nearly all of which, incidentally, are bank subsidiaries anyway), are consumers really being offered a raw deal in comparison to personal loan rates?

It seems highly unlikely. After all, the penetration of finance into used car sales – a section of the market largely ignored by the captives since it offers little benefit to manufacturers – has also risen since the onset of hard times for the consumer pocket.

Being blunt, this is because car finance offers many people a way to fund a car when they are not able to get affordable credit elsewhere. The reason for this is fairly simple. Motor finance providers secure their lending against the car purchased, which gives them an alternative way to mitigate credit risk besides hiking up APR on a deal.

This does leave customers at risk of vehicle repossession if payments are not maintained. However, with the current regulatory climate leaning heavily on those companies which take a louche approach to affordability in their lending, not to mention the costs involved in repossession, it’s not as if lenders are funding vehicles with a view to seeing them again within a year.

In fact, default rates in the motor finance sector have been sitting at a historic low in the years of relatively cautious lending since the recession, despite the weakness of the UK household wallet.

So far in this discussion, we’ve taken the high street lenders on their word with regard to advertised rates. But there is, you may be unsurprised to hear, a fairly heft salt cellar to be pinched from when considering these claims. I’ll be looking to get stuck into that next time.

It may indeed be a good time for car dealers looking to entice people into signing up for finance, but to be fair to this much-maligned sector of the retail industry, they may actually be telling the truth when they tell potential buyers they’re doing them a favour.

Fred Crawley edits Leasing Life and Motor Finance at VRL Financial News.

Car salesmen: as bad as all that? 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 Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.