Would Newcastle have to pay back £4bn if its Wonga sponsorship was a loan?

Interest is tricky.

When Wonga announced their intention to sponsor Newcastle United FC, it generated no small amount of opprobrium. Despite the company's best attempts to generate a positive image for itself, it is still largely seen as a payday loan company, preying on the poor for a quick buck. So it was no surprise that smart a demonstration of that fact very quickly made the rounds:

Anything with over 2,000 retweets is going to get fact-checked a lot, and debates soon broke out over whether the number was accurate. Is it?

Wonga's "representative APR" is 4214 per cent. When you take out a loan with it, it decides at the beginning of the period what your interest is, and charges it to you on the total amount of capital borrowed over that period. In other words, it doesn't compound the interest - which makes sense, because it would be hard to compound anything over a loan as short month. As a result, if you were charged an annual interest rate of 4214 per cent, then at the end of a four year period you would have to pay back: 

£24,000,000 + £24,000,000 x 42.14 x 4 = £4,069,440,000.00                                 

(That's the capital, plus four years interest.) A shade over £4bn. So James Dixon is correct.

Except that the 4214 per cent APR is already compounded. As Wonga explains, industry regulations require it to present interest at an annual rate even if it doesn't make annual loans. To do this, it is required to take the amount of interest you would pay on its longest loan, a month-long one, and act as though you rolled it over, taking out larger and larger loans to pay off the interest as you go along. If we compounded Newcastle's loan similarly, then after four years it would owe:

£24,000,000 x (1+42.14)^4 = £83,125,028,034,051.84                                 

That is £83 quadrillion. It's over one hundred times world GDP, and in the ballpark for the total value of everything on earth.

But Wonga would maintain that using that interest rate is unfair. Although they are required to present their representative APR in that manner, they have never, and would never, charge it to a customer. The annual rate of interest which they actually charge is "just" 360 per cent, and the rest is made up of the compounding which they are forced to assume. If Newcastle's loan was taken out at that rate, it would have to pay back:

£24,000,000 + £24,000,000 × 3.6 x 4 = £369,600,000.00                                 

£370m is still quite a lot to pay for £24m, but it's nowhere near billions. And in actual fact, Newcastle wouldn't even pay that much. It's not a person, it's a business, and Wonga have - controversially - launched a division exclusively for lending to businesses. The largest and longest loan it offers is £15,000 for a year, which costs £19,350 to pay back, implying an APR of 29 per cent. If Newcastle borrowed £24m for four years at that rate, then if the interest compounded, it would equal:

£24,000,000 × (1+0.29)^4 = £66,461,491.44                                 

And if it was charged in one lump sum, it would equal:

£24,000,000 + £24,000,000 × 0.29 x 4 = £51,840,000.00                                 

The root of the problem is that Wonga isn't actually in the business of making multi-year, multi-million-pound loans. The assumptions we make in trying to squeeze their business model into a shape that lets us make that comparison are important, because they're the difference between paying back £52m and £83qdrn.

Front page of Wonga.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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