High-interest lenders move on from paydays

"Payday loan" companies are starting to branch out to much longer terms

Turn on the telly during the daytime and you are very likely to see adverts informing you about PPI claims or payday loans. Now there are a new bunch to be aware of: 12-month, high-cost, unsecured loans at rates of interest of up to 278 per cent – meaning that repayments will already be over twice the amount you have borrowed, and that excludes fees and penalties that might be incurred (Pounds to Pocket, for example, charge £12 for their penalty fees).

That these companies are advertising expensive loans over a year, with no credit checks, and where the money can be in your account in ten minutes, shows another failure in the mainstream banking sector to offer sensible loans to consumers.

Figures show that even after UK banks were in receipt of bailout funds, 1.75 million people go without a transitional bank account, and 9 million lack access to affordable credit. To bolster this credit cards have dropped in circulation by 1 million since 2011 and membership to credit unions have not risen from 2 per cent of the population, despite funding and modernisation attempts.

The cost of living, including how much we spend on food and bills, continues to go up, and real incomes are no higher than they were in 2005 for many of us.

As payday lenders are set to be the beneficiaries of this mess in personal finance, it's hardly a surprise to see them venturing out with other products. One broker, 1 Year Loan, has on its website:

If you too [sic] facing inadequacy of funds and want a [sic] financial help, then 1 year payday loans can be the loan service that you can rely upon […] Apply with 1 Year Loan No Credit Check right away!

With the 12-month loan, lenders offer larger sums that they claim are competitive when compared with other payday lenders.

Mentioned in a report on these new loans in the Independent, the company Lending Stream boast that their 3,378.1 per cent APR beats Wonga's 4,214 per cent equivalent – though of course Wonga do not encourage taking out loans over 6-12 months.

Pounds to Pocket, another company, on their website point out that if you borrow £500 for a year you would pay back £79.09 a month, a total of £949.01 including interest of £449.01.

It is to the shame of mainstream lenders that expensive alternatives are seeing a growth in their product. In France and Germany mainstream credit facilities are part of most basic bank account packages – something not extended to everyone in the UK.

In the Independent's report, the journalists mistakenly say that payday loans could become small fry compared to the 12-month loans, while the headline notes: "Forget payday loans, the one-year debts are the ones to fear".

This is not the right way to look at the situation. What this represents is payday loan companies finding a gap in the market and swooping in where mainstream services are being risk averse. This should not put us at ease with payday lenders at all.

Minister Norman Lamb recently welcomed the revised codes of conduct from the four trade bodies that represent payday lenders (Consumer Finance Association (CFA), Finance and Leasing Association (FLA), British Cheque and Credit Association (BCCA) and Consumer Credit Trade Association (CCTA)).

But payday lenders are obliged to show how much their product costs anyway, set out in the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) lending code. In their guide on irresponsible lending, the OFT note that lenders should carry out proper credit checks and disincentivise rollovers. The revised codes are the very least we can expect.

Yet the industry is currently under investigation by the OFT after concerns lenders are taking advantage of people in financial difficulty – which is contrary to their codes.

We should not become complacent about the payday lenders even when other products arrive on the market that do not sit well with us. The government and Norman Lamb should be spending all the time they can spare to finding out why people end up taking out these loans and making sure they can seek mainstream services where it benefits them.

A payday loan company in Birkenhead. 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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.