Payday lenders have lessons to learn from credit unions

A cap on interest is the first step to transforming predatory lenders into responsible ones.

We know we have come a long way when Iain Duncan-Smith says, "for too long now predatory lenders have been plaguing the homes of vulnerable people." But what does his government intend to do about it? Not a lot so far.

Admittedly, if there was to be an interest rate cap on the loans dealt out by predatory lenders, then they would just find ways around it, like loading up administrative fees and charges elsewhere. So what then? A cap on the total cost of credit is what we should pine for today, placing a cost ceiling on how much a loan, inclusive of charges and administrative fees, would be to a consumer.

The benefits to a person taking out loans would be unprecedented.

Since the "Big Bang" – the sudden deregulation of the financial markets back in the 1980s – policymakers have been loath to right the wrongs of market irresponsibility with anything other than mere guidance. The same must be said of the credit market. At an official level, we require responsible lending, but it is all self-regulated. This has to change.

However there is one financial product that does have, imposed upon it, a legal cap. That is a loan from a credit union. Currently a credit union cannot lend at more than 26.8 per cent interest. This has always been the main pull of a credit union’s appeal – it can lend at a low interest, and offers advice and encourages savings as well.

The first credit union in the UK was likely to have been born out of the first properly documented cooperative institution which was in Rochdale in 1844. As Ann-Marie Ward and Donal McKillop in their paper on the relationship between credit union objects and cooperative philosophies point out, it probably wasn’t the first credit union as such, as the unions grew out of less formal savings groups – but certainly it was the most successful of the day on which many others were subsequently modeled.

Political support for the institutions didn't occur until the 1980s/1990s as they started to become part of local and central government discourse on tackling poverty and disadvantage. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, the Association of British Credit Unions (ABCUL), the sector’s largest trade association, decided to encourage credit unions to be a bit more like a business, so as to encourage middle-class savers and shift the image of being the "poor person’s bank".

Credit unions have been subject to many levels of so-called modernisation. In the Blair years there was a commitment towards more funding for credit unions, which was perfectly consistent with the "third way" appeal to a savings culture assisting with welfare, such as the savings gateway and the child trust fund.

Unions received a great boost from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2011, receiving a funding package of £73m for a modernization, but given that only 2 per cent of the UK population is a member of a credit union, something is missing the mark.

A recent report commissioned by the DWP has said that the sector is not financially sustainable. This might suggest that with continued funding, in the amounts that it has been coming, credit unions cost more than they are worth. I take a different view.

It is not how much they cost in funding that is the problem, but how the money is spent. When I asked Sally Chicken, Chairman (Volunteer) at Rainbow Saver Anglia Credit Union, how to make credit unions more appealing to a greater amount of people, she told me:

We are already very appealing to people once they have heard of us, so we really just need a good loud marketing campaign, I don’t understand why ABCUL is so against a national marketing awareness campaign… in the US there are still such public information radio ads, even though there is already high awareness. We need to use modern media in a better way, radio, TV, even Facebook.

The same DWP report suggests raising the maximum annual interest rate from 26.8 per cent to somewhere in the region of 42 per cent. This is bound to cause gasps. But I think it is rather modest – especially given the finding from the Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFI)'s project My Home Finance that credit unions need to charge 68 per cent to cover its costs alone.

One of the modernising moves I recommend is for credit unions to offer a home credit service. A regular feature that always comes up in Provident Financial’s annual reports is that the majority of their customers find the convenience of the loans, from their doorstep, very satisfactory indeed. So much so, in fact, people are willing to pay way over the odds for it.

On the face of it, home credit, at a representative APR of 272.2 per cent, seems irrational, particularly given the availability of lower cost loans elsewhere. Taking note of this, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, back in 2009, published a report assessing whether there could be scope for a not-for-profit home credit provider – taking the best from the industry and seeing whether it could be achieved at a price that doesn't exploit the customer.

The resulting conclusion from the study found that even without profit, at a break-even rate, 129 per cent APR was going to be typical on a loan of £288 over an average 56 week loan, assuming an investment of £18m with the intention of becoming cash-positive, operating without further investment, after five years.

Credit unions should enjoy continued investment, and in the last few years have received far more than £18m, so a lower rate home credit service could be feasible. This is guaranteed to get people to join credit unions, and signposts a more creative approach to modernisation.

If we want better credit unions, interventions like this one are the way forward. The stock answer that credit unions, as they are, will help wean people off high-cost credit is simply not good enough.

A supporter of credit unions in Los Angeles. The organisations are more widespread in the US. 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.
 

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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