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 thisismoney.co.uk, 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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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