If Wonga are trying to muscle in to the business market, we need a British Investment Bank more than ever

Payday lenders, not content with squeezing individuals, are now going after businesses too.

Anybody who lives in London and/or uses London buses will know that those ghastly Wonga adverts have been replaced. By Wonga adverts. Though this time, for small businesses.

Wonga for Business offers loans of £3,000 to £10,000 which are available for terms of between one and 52 weeks. Costs vary with an interest rate of between 0.3 per cent and two per cent which seems competitive if repaid early, but a 52 week loan, according to Tim Harford, at 2 per cent could work out to have attached to it an interest rate of 280 per cent per year.

Another estimate, this from Sharlene Goff (the FT’s retail banking correspondent), estimated that the largest loan (£10,000) for the longest term (a year) would rack up almost £11,000 in charges.

I exchanged emails with a spokesperson from the company during the week, hoping to find out some tangible figures for how well the new venture is going. All I was told, sadly, was that there have been thousands of applications thus far, and good feedback from people who have been approved, but due to the commercial nature of the company all evidence was kept under wraps.

OK so the suspicion is that it is all bluster. A commercial company with no evidence to show off saying that they're doing great to put the willies in their competitors. But I'm not so sceptical, unfortunately.

Wonga have come to be recognised as another unsavoury payday lender, and for good reason in my opinion, albeit one that is slightly more public-facing than the rest (and this says an awaful lot about the rest). Though what I've come to learn about this financial product is that it often fills in and exploits the gaps where mainstream services are falling behind.

This is the case with payday loans to individuals. And it is the case for businesses as well. Research in November by the Federation of Small Businesses showed that between 2007 and 2010 there was a 24 per cent fall in successful loan applications, while more than half of the small firms that applied for an overdraft last year were rejected.

Even in the good times things weren't sparkly. As Duncan Weldon at the Touchstone Blog has pointed out, "around 85 per cent of bank lending [had been] going to either financial companies or property" even in better financial times.

Competition in this market is rather flat as well. In 2011 the Independent Commission on Banking identified that the largest four banks account for 85 per cent of SME current accounts.

So though Wonga are playing on a very real problem in the state of play in the financial sector, the real issue lies in the failure of banks to lend to small and medium businesses – surely a vital element in our economic recovery.

But what is in our armoury? What tools can we use? It certainly didn't go unnoticed this week that Ed Miliband used the opportunity at the Co-operative Bank HQ to talk up the merits of a British Investment Bank – on the day that the Labour party published a report by Nicholas Tott, a former city lawyer, to make that very case.

Although, this case has been made again and again – why should it have taken this long? One of its most active proponents is Lord (Robert) Skideslsky. In one of his many cases for a national investment bank he exemplifies the European Investment Bank (the European Union's public development bank).

EU governments that own the EIB, in contributing an equivalent sum of £32bn, alongside the bank itself borrowing a further equivalent to £271bn from private capital markets, the EU governments were able to finance investments worth more than the equivalent of £304bn including for ports from Barcelona to Warsaw, the TGV network in France and the world-leading offshore wind industry here in Britain, creating jobs along the way.

Another example, in Germany, is the Kreditanstalt fur Wiederafbau (KfW), a second tier bank, provides cheap loans (liquidity loans at low rates and long maturities) to SMEs using the commercial banks as intermediaries. In 2010, KfW financed loans worth a record €28.5bn for SMEs, creating 66,000 jobs in addition to the 1.3m jobs it helped maintain (which has been on Labour's mind since Lord Mandelson made it the model de jour).

Why has it been most pertinant that Miliband raise the spectre of a British Investment Bank at the time he did (even though he, and others, commissioned the report by Nicholas Tott in December 2011)? Because as Skideslsky notes:

“The financial crisis has left the impression that the main purpose of the banking sector is to enrich a tiny elite at the expense of taxpayers.”

We may all understand in principle that a functioning financial system is crucial to the national economy, but we can hardly attest to this happening in practice (consider, if you will, the NEF calculation that for every £1 paid to “elite” city bankers £7 of social value is destroyed, as well as the damning verdict of Adair Turner, the chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, who views the past decade of financial innovation as mostly "socially useless").

In short, a British Investment Bank is something that could gain cross-party consensus, provide a real solution to the lending shortfall, build up SMEs, jobs and growth – and allow entrepreneurs to avoid the lending freeze or risking it all with expensive business loans from Wonga.

As a parting shot the Wonga spokesperson told me that we can expect to see “more products from us before the end of the year, but I can't give you any hints I'm afraid”. Perhaps if we are diligent enough we can spot the financial shortfalls before Wonga get there first.  

A payday lender. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.