BIS and OFT hint at cosmestic changes to payday loan regulations

Some positive, but largely symbolic, news.

There are going to be some positive changes happening to the regulation of the payday lending industry as of Wednesday–though we can expect a mixed reception from the release of two government reports looking in to it, one by the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) and the other by the Department of Business, Industry and Skills (BIS). 

To put a positive gloss on them more work will be done by the regulatory body to ensure bad practices in the industry, such as not carrying out rigorous credit checks, will be properly punished. On the other hand the BIS report has found evidence that capping the cost at which credit can be sold (notoriously high by payday lenders on the high street, many of whom have a 4000 per cent APR attached to them) would be a detriment to consumers.

Despite the prospect of rogue lenders losing their licenses, this will come as a disappointment to critics of the payday lending industry who felt there would be a significant change in direction by the government, after amending the Financial Services Bill last year to give the newly created Financial Conduct Authority the power to cap the cost of credit. 

But there are many reasons why Wednesday's reports will be disappointing. Recommendations by the OFT rehash their existing guidance on lending rules. Indeed nothing much is changing, what they are now promising again to do is better enforce their own guidelines. 

For example in 2010 the OFT’s guidance for creditors on irresponsible lending pointed out that:

All assessments of affordability should involve a consideration of the potential for the credit commitment to adversely impact on the borrower’s financial situation, taking account of information that the creditor is aware of at the time the credit is granted.

Their call for better affordability assessments has always been stipulated for by the regulators. The other recommendations they have made, including transparency on how lenders collect their money and the need for forbearance measures, are also already catered for. The only difference being that they have been unable to properly enforce their regulations. Only time will tell whether that has changed. 

As for the BIS report the research into what effect a cap on the cost of credit will look like was only based upon research of interest rate caps. As the report itself says:

The available evidence about the impact of price restrictions on the cost that consumers pay for credit relates to interest rate restrictions, however, not the total charge for credit.

We might excuse this on the grounds that no other country puts a cap on the total cost of credit, while many other countries have interest rate caps. But the government should waste no more time on this and assess properly what kind of regulation we really need to ensure borrowers are not paying over the odds for their credit. 

Essentially all that BIS, who commissioned the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol to carry out the research, have done is look at what will happen if you remove the supply of credit when there is high demand. Inevitably, in isolation, this will be detrimental to consumers.

Government focus, however, should be on how to get payday lenders themselves to reduce their front end fees like administrative costs. There needs to be greater transparency on how these costs are realised and work should be done with the payday lending industry to see if those costs can be cheaper for the borrower.

Focus should also be laid upon how mainstream banks can incorporate those borrowers who might otherwise seek high cost credit, which itself is detrimental to their personal finances, discourages savings behaviour or putting money away for a rainy day, and impacts negatively on consumer-led growth.

Furthermore government needs to look into building up alternative lenders such as non-profit credit unions, who sell credit at a much cheaper rate of interest, and provide debt management advice for those in vulnerable situations. 

And lastly more focus should be put on addressing the root cause of the growth in the payday lending industry: stagnating wages; the rising cost of living; and high unemployment.

We can draw some positivity from this latest news, but it is largely symbolic. In truth the findings of both reports will only scratch the surface of the problem. Far more work needs to be done, and fast, as personal debt crises, bolstered by payday lenders, are taking grip of vulnerable households right now. 

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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?