Credit Unions just might have a fighting chance

A real ethical alternative?

A recent report by the London Mutual Credit Union has given a real boost to the prospect of ensuring payday lending is undercut, not just by sensible regulation, but also by healthy competition from ethical alternatives.

The following figures, from that report, are astonishing:

According to the OFT, the average loan amount is £265 and the average cost of a payday loan is £25 for every £100 borrowed. This typical loan repaid over one month would therefore cost at least £66, compared to just £5.30 with LMCU. By borrowing through LMCU instead of high cost payday lenders, the 1,219 who borrowed during the pilot have collectively saved at minimum of £144,966 in interest charges alone, equivalent to almost £119 per borrower.

That saving could be used by consumers to ensure they don't get caught in a future debt cycle - and what a huge saving it is, too.

The report does some further number crunching:

If the 7.4m and 8.2m payday loans taken out in 2011/2012 from high cost lenders had been through a credit union alternative, we estimate that between £676m and £749m would have been collectively saved. This would equate to an average saving of at least £91.43 for every payday loan made through the credit union.

Millions and millions of pounds could be saved from going into the pockets of payday lenders if an alternative, based upon the LMCU model, could be secured.

There is, however, a caveat. A new report by Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit (CfRC) has the following discussion:

the evaluation of the London Mutual Credit Union pilot reported that the payday loan offering was a "loss leader", finding that on average each loan would require a subsidy of £6.85 to break even.

However the government announced earlier in the year that by 2014 the amount of interest that a credit union can charge on a loan will rise from 26.8 per cent now to 42.6 per cent. This way credit unions will be able to offer payday alternative products that break even.

The likelihood is that because of the slightly higher interest rate the savings that borrowers will be able to achieve will reduce slightly, but CfRC has worked out that for credit unions there will still be a healthy return on investment. What's more, it will provide immense savings compared to payday loans for consumers.

As is well known the Archbishop of Canterbury said recently that given time credit unions would out-compete Wonga, after which news came in that Wonga earned in profit £1m per week in 2012. Understandably many were sceptical. But credit unions now have a fighting chance. This is great news for consumers.

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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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.