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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The Land Registry sale puts a quick buck before common sense

Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, property scandals would be much harder to uncover.

Britain’s family silver is all but gone. Sale after sale since the 1970s has stripped the cupboards bare: our only assets remaining are those either deemed to be worth next to nothing, or significantly contribute to the Treasury’s coffers.

A perfect example of the latter is the Land Registry, which ensures we’re able to seamlessly buy and sell property.

This week we learned that London’s St Georges Wharf tower is both underoccupied and largely owned offshore  - an embodiment of the UK’s current housing crisis. Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, this sort of scandal would be much harder to uncover.

On top of its vital public function, it makes the Treasury money: a not-insignificant £36.7m profit in 2014/15.

And yet the government is trying to push through the sale of this valuable asset, closing a consultation on its proposal this week.

As recently as 2014 its sale was blocked by then business secretary Vince Cable. But this time Sajid Javid’s support for private markets means any opposition must come from elsewhere.

And luckily it has: a petition has gathered over 300,000 signatures online and a number of organisations have come out publically against the sale. Voices from the Competition and Markets Authority to the Law Society, as well as unions, We Own It, and my organisation the New Economics Foundation are all united.

What’s united us? A strong and clear case that the sale of the Land Registry makes no sense.

It makes a steady profit and has large cash reserves. It has a dedicated workforce that are modernising the organisation and becoming more efficient, cutting fees by 50 per cent while still delivering a healthy profit. It’s already made efforts to make more data publically available and digitize the physical titles.

Selling it would make a quick buck. But our latest report for We Own It showed that the government would be losing money in just 25 years, based on professional valuations and analysis of past profitability.

And this privatisation is different to past ones, such as British Airways or Telecoms giants BT and Cable and Wireless. Using the Land Registry is not like using a normal service: you can’t choose which Land Registry to use, you use the one and only and pay the list price every time that any title to a property is transacted.

So the Land Registry is a natural monopoly and, as goes the Competition and Market Authority’s main argument, these kinds of services should be publically owned. Handing a monopoly over to a private company in search of profit risks harming consumers – the new owners may simply charge a higher price for the service, or in this case put the data, the Land Registry’s most valuable asset, behind a paywall.

The Law Society says that the Land Registry plays a central role in ensuring property rights in England and Wales, and so we need to ensure that it maintains its integrity and is free from any conflict of interest.

Recent surveys have shown that levels of satisfaction with the service are extremely high. But many of the professional bodies representing those who rely on it, such as the Law Society and estate agents, are extremely sceptical as to whether this trust could be maintained if the institution is sold off.

A sale would be symbolic of the ideological nature of the proposal. Looked at from every angle the sale makes no sense – unless you believe that the state shouldn’t own anything. Seen through this prism and the eyes of those in the Treasury, all the Land Registry amounts to is £1bn that could be used to help close the £72bn deficit before the next election.

In reality it’s worth so much more. It should stay free, open and publically owned.

Duncan McCann is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation