Credit cards are obsolete. Is consumer debt heading the same way?

The technological history of credit.

Slate's Matt Yglesias, in a post about the effect higher bank capital requirements could have on the real economy, gives a brief overview of the changing nature of credit in America:

Once upon a time credit overwhelmingly meant business credit, which then expanded into the personal sphere primarily in the special case of houses and what you might call household investment goods (cars, large appliances). That then metastasised into the all-in culture of consumer debt and credit that we know from the past 25 years.

Yglesias' point is that high capital ratios will reverse that trend, boosting the price of consumer debt while making corporate debt cheaper. This, he adds, might not be a bad thing, "disproportionately encouraging business borrowing to finance investment while discouraging consumer borrowing to enhance consumption".

But what I find interesting is how that "metastasisation" of a relatively small field of debt into the widespread credit economy we now have was born. It was, broadly, a technological imperative, as the Financial Times' Isabella Kaminska points out:

The credit component in credit cards came into play because in the “old days” extending credit was the easiest way to transact remotely without the use of physical cash.

Any alternative back then would have involved waiting hours (if not days) for the merchant to call your bank, who would then verify who you were, who would then make a deduction from your account, who would then send an instruction to the merchant’s bank, whose bank would make a corresponding credit, who would both use different parties to clear and confirm the transaction. Sometimes by post.

It was basically much easier (from a velocity point of view) for a bank to guarantee to the merchant that you were good for the money by means of a piece of plastic. The transaction would take place and you would then owe the bank, whilst all the settlement processes continued on in the background. If you didn’t pay, it was between you and the underwriter bank. The merchant was covered. You were probably black-listed.

Initially, then, the fact that credit cards enabled people to freely and easily spend beyond their means wasn't deliberate — it was a by-product of the real aim, which was just to let people pay for things. It wasn't quite a bug in the system, because card issuers were always more than happy to let people pay off their credit card bills in instalments, racking up healthy interest payments in the process. But it was hugely important in getting the concept of borrowing to pay normal daily bills into people's heads.

Nowadays, of course, that technological imperative is nonexistent. Although they will take every possible opportunity to delay payments, squeezing marginal gains from the extra interest, banks are capable of transferring money instantly. At the very least, the fact that debit cards are now possible renders the initial rationale for credit cards obsolete.

Of course, if this apotheosis of the credit economy is something which is worth pushing back against, as Yglesias suggests, then doing so by just raising interest rates is about the most damaging possible way. People have got used to boosting their standard of living with easy credit, and until they can achieve the same standard without resorting to credit, making it more expensive to borrow could backfire heavily.

Credit cards. Photograph: Getty Images

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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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.