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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood