Wonga announces record profits – but should they have them?

Carl Packman asks if we can be comfortable living in a country where Wonga makes millions.

Wonga – the controversial payday lender – has today announced record profits of £63m for 2012, or roughly £1m per week. More evidence that as financial hardship tears through many families in the UK, selling expensive loans to hard-up people is a growth industry.

Last year PwC noted in a report that between 2008 and 2010 mainstream banks lent around 50 per cent of the total stock of consumer credit. This represented a drastic cut back, despite the fact that wages were declining in this period and the small occurrence of a financial collapse.

These years were not good for borrowers on two counts: firstly it was harder to obtain credit, and second more people were unable to see their wages out to the end of the month.

While Bank of England data reveals that consumer credit has risen in recent times by 3.5 per cent, it does not follow that mainstream banks have returned to providing for local communities again. Another report by CityWire shows that some 52 per cent of the total stock of credit lent comes from "other" financial institutions – the main one being payday lenders.

It is no wonder Wonga have recorded massive profits – we live in the Wonga age.

But is it their fault? Certainly we cannot blame the company for bank failings, the rising cost of living, and declining wages, things over which they can have no effect. But they do control the way in which they sell their loans.

Reports abound of Wonga selling loans to people whose financial situation means that the last thing they need is high cost credit. I wrote in these pages about Susan, the unemployed nurse who was granted several loans by the company to pay for bills and food. At no point was she signposted more affordable alternatives or given debt advice by the payday lender.

Wonga themselves point out that they use a very sophisticated algorithm to determine who it is reasonable to lend to. But it seems there are some deep flaws with this system. This is Money earlier this year reported having spoke to 50 people who had had loans taken out of their accounts – despite those people not having applied for loans themselves. 

To illustrate how much of a problem this could be, aside from potentially losing money and the hassle, This is Money spoke to Adrian Anderson, director of mortgage broker Anderson Harris, who pointed out that: “if [a] loan is taken out fraudulently and subsequently not repaid, this will be seen as a black mark on your credit file and could affect your ability to get a mortgage.”

The image that Wonga present of themselves is different to that of independent pollsters. The company boast that they have a great customer satisfaction record, however YouGov recently surveyed some of its borrowers and found that they scored worse than Ryanair.

Interviewing at random 89 borrowers, 24 per cent were satisfied, 41 per cent dissatisfied, and 35 per cent neutral.

Wonga are, indeed, a consequence of the deleterious financial situation in the UK, rather than a cause of it. No one would deny this. But their loans don't help the personal finances of many vulnerable today. They say they turn many people away. Perhaps true, but should they warn more people of the dangers of using their product? I say yes. In addition to financial health warnings being put on their adverts, I'd like to see Wonga advertising the services of ethical lenders such as credit unions – who are better placed to serve those financially vulnerable people in hock to them.

So now Wonga have made all that money, should they keep it? Far be it from me to tell a private company what to do with its money, but maybe they could offer some to the Church of England who, along with the archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, are busy making the case and building up the presence of credit unions. Though really I would prefer to see the company make less money in the future – after all, nobody should be comfortable with the idea of firms profiting from poverty. It may be legal, but is it right?

A payday lender in Brixton. 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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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.