Finally there's agreement that payday lending needs to be tackled. But how?

Access to banking, co-operative credit and caps on interest should all be considered.

The payday lending industry is in total disgrace. After a survey and report carried out by Citizens Advice, who called the industry “out of control”, it has been shown that lenders have sold loans to young people aged below 18, people with mental health difficulties and people who are drunk. This is contrary to any responsible lending criteria and should therefore be dealt with rigorously by the authorities. 

To make matters worse it has emerged that complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) about payday lending shot up 83 per cent last year, the third highest rise of any sector with the exception of the home credit industry (139 per cent) and payment protection insurance (PPI – 140 per cent).

The Office for Fair Trading officially began their investigation of the industry in March 2013, but since the CAB's results run up until 13 May 2013 (when their in-depth analysis of 780 cases stopped) it's safe to say that bad practice carried on regardless of OFT oversight. 

Even the payday lending trade association, the Consumer Finance Association, has its own Code of Practice which its members (making up 70 per cent of the payday lending market in the UK) pledge to commit to, including rules of affordability assessments, debt collection procedures and grace periods for troubled debtors. 

The trouble is irresponsible lending is woven so firmly into the business model of payday lending it is hard to erase it. When we consider for example that 28 per cent of loans are either rolled over (where one loan is taken out to service the interest on an existing loan) or refinanced, which provides 50 per cent of a lenders' revenue, it's a very big ask to expect the industry to voluntarily give up a big part of its profit maximisation. 

What's more is that payday lenders do not compete on price, but rather speed of service. Therefore if a high street is littered with lenders this will not have too much effect on the price at which a loan will cost (which ranges from around £25-35 per £100 loan, per month) but drives lenders to make faster decisions, incentivising the accepting of loan applications irresponsibly. 

As Stella Creasy MP said on Tuesday “this industry continues to fall out of the grip of regulators”. Indeed it looks like its getting worse before it gets better. 

However we are still at a point where we are merely finding faults with the industry and not seeking solutions. 

Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, in her FT editorial on Tuesday, pointed out that banks need to take some part in the blame for the rise of payday lending. 

In so doing they should also do the following: a) accept responsibility and offer a product to challenge payday lending; b) provide basic “jam-jar” accounts for individuals which also offer budgeting support; c) offer face-face financial support; and d) reopen their offer of current accounts to undischarged bankrupts. 

This would be a fantastic start in the consumer credit industry, but alongside this government should also acknowledge the ways in which other countries tackle predatory lenders.

The Financial Conduct Authority will have the power to cap the cost of credit when they take over from the Financial Services Authority on payday lenders in April 2014. They should use it, looking to the rest of the world for guidance. 

For example in France and Germany there are restictions on where credit is available from. In Germany interest rates are capped at twice the market rate and in France the limit is reviewed every three months. There is no evidence to suggest illegal lending is any more a problem in those countries than in the UK where there is no cap on the price at which a lender can sell credit. 

Furthermore, in the UK, there are 7.7 million bank accounts without credit facilities, nearly four times the number of Germany (2 million at the end of 2006) and France (2.1 million in 2008),while 9 million people cannot access credit from mainstream banks in the UK, as opposed to around 2.5 million in Germanyand between 2.5 million and 4.1 million in France.

Looking further afield to Canada, unless changed through provincial legislation concerning the provisioning of payday loans, usury laws prevent lenders to charge interest above 60 per cent per year. In case this squeezed supply without addressing the demand for this type of finance, Canada has made a big push on credit unions as an alternative to high cost, short term credit. 

According to the World Council of Credit Unions Canada has the highest per-capita membership in credit unions in North America. More than a third of the population is a member of at least one credit union.

Also in Japan there has been a total cost of credit cap from 40 per cent to 29.2 per cent between 1986 and 2000. While illegal lending has not risen (in fact it rose with the loosening of restrictions on the amounts credit sellers could lend at) neither has lending from mainstream banks or Shinkin (the equivalent of credit unions). 

According to Damon Gibbons of the Centre for Responsible Credit, this has been “part of a more general trend amongst Japanese households to reduce their use of credit over this period.”

There are many more examples like this that the government could and should consider but instead it runs scared of firmer regulation. We've seen the damage and irresponsibility done by payday lending, now we need to do something about it. 

If Gillian Guy's recommendations about what the banks could do to incorporate more people into mainstream finance were taken up, government could really start to crack down on the legal loan sharks, bringing some crucial changes to responsible credit and financial inclusion.

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?