Microfinance shouldn't do the government's job

It is a requirement of civil society that government obviate the need for payday lenders, writes Carl Packman.

There has been a recent interest in microfinance as a means to draw vulnerable people away from the scourge of payday lending – an industry which saw its inevitable growth over the Christmas period, with the number of enquiries about it at the Citizens Advice Bureau doubling from last year. 

The Financial Times recently ran an article headlined Microfinancier gives payday lenders run for money. Reporter Sarah O'Conner discusses to what extent this type of financial product offers a fairer deal for borrowing money, with more manageable prices attached to loans: £162 on a 52-week loan of £600 compares well with the £25-30 per month you can expect to pay for a loan of £100 with the average high cost credit seller. 

Although relatively rare in the UK, the microfinance movement is over 40 years old. It all began in the early 1970s in Bangladesh and Latin America and since then has seen small but effective support around the world. 

I spoke to Saloman Raydan Rivas, a microfinance expert, about Professor Mohammed Yunnus, the don of the microfinance movement. Rivas told me Yunnus wanted to develop a banking model which did not take advantage of the poor, but he was unsure of how to tap into existing local lending mechanisms, such as self-financed communities, to bring about change on a wider scale. 

Today there are many people trying to realise his dream, and Fair Finance, the case studied in the Financial Times' article, is one. In fact Faisal Rahman, the company’s director, is strongly influenced by the microfinance movement, and hopes to bring it to market in the UK.

But there is something rather rocky about relying on private equity funding, as Fair Finance does (a fact not discussed in the Financial Times article) that makes me worry, both in practice and on first principles. 

Fair Finance was declined investment money by Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland when it first started out, and they even had problems with Santander, which would not put up investment alone. When I asked Rahman about it, he admitted it was a setback, and one could argue this is hardly a surprise. Rahman wants funding from investors to sell loans ethically to people, charging low interest, and risking low returns, all to realise a dream of creating a banking model that undercuts usurers and rip-off merchants. 

For all the good he wants, many investors clearly see the words “low return” and run a mile. In short, we cannot rely on the good nature of profit-making big banks to finance ethical, non-profit, lending schemes. But should we expect any private business to do this? Since it is in the interest of the public purse to keep individuals' personal debt profiles down, should ethical lending not be a standard expectation of the government? 

It is surely a requirement of a civil society that the government allocate enough money – for instance, through a credit union – to ensure consumers aren't left with going to payday lenders as their only option.

Having said that, I understand Rahman’s motives. Recently it was reported that a loans company who target personnel in the armed forces with high cost credit at 3,300 per cent interest was sold advertising space in Defence Focus, the magazine of the Ministry of Defence. Is this perhaps a sign of how relaxed public bodies have become about payday lending?

High cost loans for the armed forces has become a big issue. A representative of Waterhouse Baker, who offer financial advice to any serving member of the forces, told me that payday loans is often a short-lived solution, “as many default as the monthly expenditure is too high for the income gained”. 

Problems like these need solving fast, because the problem of high personal debt is one which affects the whole economy and the whole society. For me, the buck stops with the government.

Given the enormity of the problem of debt, government should be in charge of reversing it. So while the aims of Fair Finance and other similar organisations are positive, pricing out payday lenders should be chiefly the preserve, not of microfinance, but of the state as part of its commitment to maintaining a civil society.

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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump