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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation