In an apparent U-turn, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has decided to cap the interest rates and other charges on payday loans and other short-term credit. As we have seen in previous news items, the sky-high interest rates which some of the poorest people in the UK are being forced to pay on these loans have caused outrage in many quarters: see A payday enquiry and Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, the payday loan industry has been referred by the OFT to the Competition Commission (CC). The CC is required to report by 26 June 2015, although it will aim to complete the investigation in a shorter period.
It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that the government would not wait until the CC reports. It has been under intense pressure to take action. But the announcement on 25 November 2013 that the government would cap the costs of payday loans took many people by surprise. In fact, the new body, the Financial Conduct Authority, which is due to start regulating the industry in April 2014, only a month ago said that capping was very intrusive, arguing that it could make it harder for many people to borrow and push them into the hands of loan sharks. According to paragraph 6.71 of its consultation paper, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit:
The benefits of a total cost of credit cap has been looked at by the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol. This report highlighted that 17 EU member states have some form of price restriction. Their research was ambiguous, on the one hand suggesting possible improved lending criteria and risk assessments. On the other, prices may drift towards a cap, which could lead to prices increasing or lead to a significant reduction in lenders exercising forbearance. Neither of these latter outcomes would be beneficial for consumers. Clearly this is a very intrusive proposition and to ensure we fully understand the implications we have committed to undertake further research once we begin regulating credit firms and therefore have access to regulatory data.
The government announcement has raised questions of how imperfections in markets should be dealt with. Many on the centre right argue that price controls should not be used as they can further distort the market. Indeed, the Chancellor has criticised the Labour Party’s proposal to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months if it wins the next election, arguing that the energy companies will simply get around the freeze by substantially raising their prices before and after the 20 months.
Instead, those on the centre right argue that intervention should aim to make markets more competitive. In other words, you should attempt not to replace markets, but to make them work better.
So what is the reasoning of the government in capping payday loan charges? Does it feel that, in this case, there is no other way? Or is the reasoning political? Does it feel that this is the most electorally advantageous way of answering the critics of the payday loan industry?
Webcasts and podcasts
Payday Loans To Be Capped By Government Sky News (25/11/13)
New law to cap cost of payday loans BBC News, Robert Hall (25/11/13)
Osborne: ‘Overall cost’ of payday loans to be capped BBC Today Programme (25/11/13)
George Osborne announces cap on payday loan charges amid concerns ITV News (25/11/13)
UK to cap payday lenders’ interest charges Reuters, Steve Slater, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and William James (25/11/13)
Capping payday loans: from light touch to strong arm Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (25/11/13)
Payday loans: New law to cap costs BBC News (25/11/13)
Payday loan ‘risk to mortgage applications’ BBC News (26/11/13)
Q&A: Payday loans BBC News (25/11/13)
George Osborne is playing social democratic catch-up on payday loans The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/11/13_
Payday loans cap: George Osborne caves in following intervention led by Archbishop of Canterbury Independent, Oliver Wright (25/11/13)
The principle, the practice and the politics of fixing payday loan prices: why? And why now? Conservative Home, Mark Wallace (25/11/13)
George Osborne and the risky politics of chutzpah New Statesman, Rafael Behr (26/11/13)
Chancellor too quick off the mark on payday lending cap The Telegraph, James Quinn (25/11/13)
Crap and courage of convictions: the political problem with Osborne’s payday loan plan Spectator, Isabel Hardman (26/11/13)
Payday loan calculator
Payday loan calculator: how monthly interest can spiral BBC Consumer (7/11/13)
- What types of market failing exist in the payday loan industry?
- What types of controls of the industry are being proposed by George Osborne?
- What is the experience of Australia in introducing such controls?
- What alternative forms of intervention could be used to tackle the market imperfections in the industry?
- What were the proposals of the FCA? (See paragraph 6.6 in its document, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit.)
- According to a representative example on Wonga’s website, a loan of £150 for 18 days would result in charges of £33.49 (interest of £27.99 and a fee of £5.50). This would equate to an annual APR of 5853%. Explain how this APR is calculated.
- The proposal is to allow a relatively large upfront fee and to cap interest rates at a relatively low level, such as 4% per month, as is the case in Australia. Explain the following comment about this in the Faisal Islam article above: “The upfront fee, in theory, should change the behavioural finance of consumers around taking the loan in the first place (there are ways around this though). So this is an intervention based not on lack of competition, but asymmetries of information in consumer finance.”
- Comment on the following statement by Mark Wallace in the Conservative Home article above: “If overpriced payday loans should be capped, why not overpriced DVDs, sandwiches or, er, energy bills?”
- Compare the relative advantages and disadvantages of George Osborne’s proposal with that of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (see the news item, Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury).
Over the past five years the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has been closely studying the market for personal bank accounts in the UK. Last week, it announced its latest findings and the evidence seems to suggest that there remains a lack of competition in the market.
On the positive side, it reports that there has been a large fall in unarranged overdraft fees. However, despite this, according to the OFT banks still make on average £139 per year from every active current account. Furthermore, concentration has increased with the four largest banks (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and RBS) now accounting for 85% of the market and there has been little new entry. It appears that one of the key factors in enabling these main players to dominate the market and reap high profits is a lack of consumer switching behaviour. According to the OFT chief executive, Clive Maxwell:
Customers still find it difficult to assess which account offers the best deal and lack confidence that they can switch accounts easily. This prevents them from driving effective competition between providers.
Despite all these concerns, the OFT declined to refer the market to the Competition Commission for a more in-depth investigation and potential remedial action. Instead, the OFT will look at the market again in 2015. Richard Lloyd, the executive director at the consumer organisation Which?, was disappointed with this decision and was quoted in the The Guardian as saying:
Everyone – consumers, the government, leading bankers and now the OFT – seems to agree that big change is needed in banking, and that much greater competition on the high street is urgently needed to make the banks work for customers, not bankers.
Whilst at least for the moment, the Competition Commission will not get the chance to take action, there are still several reforms underway that may affect competition in the market. First, the OFT is increasing pressure on banks to allow consumers to have portable account numbers that they can take with them if they switch provider. Second, as a result of the Independent Commission’s review, banks will be required to switch a customer’s account in one week, rather than the average of 18 days it currently takes, and this process will become much more seamless. Finally, Lloyds has agreed to sell over 600 branches to the Co-op in order to meet the European Commission’s requirements following the government bail-out of the bank in 2008. This will increase the Co-op’s share of the current account market to 7%. It will be interesting to see how these reforms affect the market. If there is not substantial evidence of increased competition then the market is likely to face more scrutiny from the competition authorities.
Bank accounts: OFT says significant change needed BBC (25/01/13)
OFT: banks failing consumers The Economic Voice (25/01/13)
Let’s make bank accounts as easy to switch as mobiles The Telegraph, Andrew Oxlade (28/01/13)
OFT chief calls for more competitive banking sector The Telegraph, Denise Roland (30/01/13)
- What type of market structure best fits the banking industry?
- What are the barriers to entry in this market?
- What are the key features of the market that reduce consumer switching behaviour?
- Do you think most people are more likely to switch their mobile phone or current account provider? Explain.
- Why does limited consumer switching reduce the intensity of competition?
- Do you think the current reforms will result in a substantial increase in competition?
Everyone who drives in the UK is required to take out car insurance. Whilst fully comprehensive is voluntary, it is compulsory to have at least third party insurance, which covers damage to other vehicles. Insurance premiums are calculated based on a number of different variables, such that two people driving the same car may face wildly different costs.
Although there are many insurance companies to choose from, this industry has been referred to the Competition Commission by the OFT as it was ‘worried the structure of the market was making costs and premiums unnecessarily high.’
According to Moneysupermarket, the average cost of car insurance reached a high of £554 in April 2011, but have fallen by £76 since. With tight incomes across the UK for many families, high car insurance premiums is another strain and thus this investigation will come at an apt time, even though the findings of the CC may not be reported for 2 years. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) said that the investigation would:
‘bring much-needed reforms to the market that will, in turn, result in lower car insurance premiums for consumers’.
The problem seems to be that when an individual is involved in an accident and sends their car off for repairs, their insurance company doesn’t have much control over the bills they end up paying, which can be inflated by £155 each time. This therefore leads into higher costs for the insurance company, which are then passed on the driver in the form of an increased premium. Other concerns were that courtesy cars were being offered, at an estimated cost of £560 per vehicle (according to the OFT) and that drivers were using these cars for longer than necessary, once again causing costs to rise.
Altogether, it has been suggested that the actions of the insurance company of ‘not-at-fault’ drivers, car hire companies, repairers and brokers push up the prices for ‘at-fault’ drivers’ insurance companies. Given that any insurance company is just as likely to be the ‘at-fault’ insurance company, they all face rising costs.
Back in May, the OFT had already decided that the car insurance market required a more detailed investigation, because of the ‘dysfunctionality’ of the market. Following a public consultation, the industry will now face an investigation by the CC. One additional area that may be of interest to the CC came to light last year, where it was found that insurance companies were claiming against themselves in a bid to drive up premiums. Although the investigation will take some time, it is still a timely review for many drivers, who have seen the cost of motoring reach record highs. The following articles consider the market for car insurance.
Car insurance market referred to Competition Commission BBC News (28/9/12)
No quick fix for motor insurance abuses, says watchdog Independent, Simon Read (29/9/12)
Car insurance industry faces probe The Press Association (28/9/12)
Competition Commission referral will take time to lower motor insurance premiums The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (28/9/12)
UK car insurance probe over-shadows Direct Line IPO Reuters, Matt Scuffham and Myles Neligan (28/9/12)
Car insurance scrutinized over high premiums Sky News (28/9/12)
Rip-off motor insurance firms face competition watchdogs probe over £225million racket Mail Online, Ray Massey (28/9/12)
- Why are car insurance firms willing to take on other people’s risks?
- What conditions must exist in a market for private companies to provide acr insurance (or insurance of any kind)?
- Why is third-party insurance compulsory, whereas people can opt for fully comprehensive insurance?
- What powers does (a) the OFT and (b) the Competition Commission have? Is it likely that this report will have any impact on car insurance premiums?
- What allegations have been made that help to explain why insurance premiums I this industry have increased?
- Is there an argument for allowing the industry itself to provide its own regulation?
- In which market structure would you place the car insurance industry?
When crude oil prices go up, the prices of petrol and diesel go up pretty well straight away and by the full amount, or more, of the crude price rise. When crude prices go down, however, road fuel prices are often slow to fall; and when they do, the fall is less than the full fall in crude prices.
Click on charts below for a larger version. Click here for a PowerPoint of the left-hand chart.
In response to complaints of motorists and haulage companies, the Office of Fair Trading has announced that it will investigate the link between crude prices and prices at the pump. It will report in January 2013.
The review will consider questions of competition and market power. In particular, it will look at the power of the oil companies in determining the wholesale price of road fuel.
It will also examine the retail fuel sector and whether supermarkets are driving out independent retailers. The claim of many independent petrol stations is that supermarkets are selling below cost as a lost leader to encourage people to shop in their stores. They also claim that supermarkets use their buying power to obtain fuel more cheaply.
What is more, most of the petrol stations that are not part of supermarkets are owned by the oil companies. Again, independents claim that oil companies supply fuel more cheaply to their own stations than to independents.
As a result of what many independents see as unfair competition, many are driven out of business. Today there some 9000 petrol stations in the UK; 20 years ago there were twice as many.
The following articles look at the remit of the OFT investigation and at the competition issues in the road fuel market.
Formal inquiry tries to ease motorist pain at the pumps ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg (5/9/12)
OFT to scrutinise retail petrol market Financial Times, Caroline Binham (5/9/12)
OFT launches probe into pump prices Channel 4 News (5/9/12)
Petrol and diesel prices: Office of Fair Trading launches competition inquiry Guardian, Terry Macalister (5/9/12)
Petrol and diesel price review is launched by OFT BBC News (5/9/12)
Are supermarkets to blame for the devastation of independent petrol retailers by deliberately selling at a loss? This is Money, Tom Mcghie and Neil Craven (8/9/12)
OFT petrol pricing probe welcomed The Grocer, Beth Phillips (7/9/12)
Private businesses welcome OFT’s fuel price investigation Talking Retail (6/9/12)
10 charges that make consumers scratch their heads BBC News Magazine, Lucy Townsend (6/9/12)
Crude Oil Price Index Index Mundi
Daily Brent Crude Spot Price, 1987 to present day US Energy Information Administration
Current UK Petrol Pump Prices What Pric£?
Fuel Prices WhatGas.com
- Describe the structure of the road fuel market, from oil production through to the retailing of petrol and diesel.
- What is meant by the terms ‘monosony’ and ‘oligopsony’? Which companies in the road fuel market have significant monopsony/oligopsony power?
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for road fuel in (a) the short run; (b) the long run? What implications does this have for the value of the short-run and long-run price elasticities?
- Where is the abuse of market power likely to occour in the road fuel market?
- To what extent is it in the consumers’ interests for supermarkets to sell road fuel below average cost?
- Examine the data for pump prices and crude oil prices and establish whether there is any truth in the claim that pump prices adjust rapidly to a rise in crude prices and slowly to a fall in crude prices.
You’ve probably heard of Groupon. If you join its emailing list, the company will send you daily details of deals in your area that it has negotiated with local retailers. If you want to take advantage of any particular deal, you sign up for it online and if enough people do so to reach a minimum number agreed with the retailer, Groupon will bill your credit card. You then download the voucher and use it to purchase you discounted item or service. Discounts are often substantial – 50% or more.
But are these deals as good as they seem? On 2 December, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority took the decision to refer Groupon UK to the Office of Fair Trading, following 48 breaches of the advertising code of practice in eleven months. It referred complaints about Groupon’s:
• Failure to conduct promotions fairly, such as not making clear significant terms and conditions
• Failure to provide evidence that offers are available
• Exaggeration of savings claims
And it was not just consumers who had complained. Many retailers found that so many people signed up for certain deals and the discounts were so great, with Groupon often charging the retailer half the discounted price, that retailers made substantial losses on the deals. One example was a cupcake maker, Rachel Brown, who runs the Need a Cake bakery in Reading, Berkshire. She had to bake so many extra cupcakes below cost that profits for the year were wiped out.
So what is the nature of this market failure and how appropriate are the competition authorities for dealing with it? The following webcasts and articles look at the issues. They also consider the growing problems Groupon faces in the market from new competitors.
It has not been good news recently for Groupon and it’s hardly surprising that, following Groupon’s flotation on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the USA last month, and an initial surge in the share price, its shares have since fallen by over 40%.
Groupon investigated by OFT Channel 4 News on YouTube, Benjamin Cohen (2/12/11)
Time to Jump Off Groupon Bandwagon? Newsy (24/11/11)
Groupon to be investigated by Office of Fair Trading Guardian, Mark Sweney (2/12/11)
OFT launches investigation into Groupon advertisements BBC News (2/12/11)
UK regulator launches Groupon probe Financial Times, Michael Stothard (2/12/11)
Groupon investigated by UK advertising authorities ZDNet, Eileen Brown (5/12/11)
Deal with it: Groupon ponders its future Independent, Stephen Foley (6/12/11)
Groupon’s Business Model Doomed To Fail Seeking Alpha, Mazen Abdallah (5/12/11)
Small Businesses Hate Groupon LiveOutLoud, Loral Langemeier
Competition authorities sites
ASA refers complaints about Groupon to OFT Advertising Standards Authority (2/12/11)
Investigation into the trading practices of MyCityDeal Limited (trading as Groupon UK) Office for Fair Trading (2/12/11)
- What market failings are there in the discount voucher market?
- What to retailers gain from dealing with companies such as Groupon?
- Do small businesses have anyone other than themselves to blame if they make a loss from doing a deal with Groupon?
- What should be the role of the competition authorities in the discount voucher market?
- Is Groupon’s business model ‘doomed to failure’ and if so why?
- Does Groupon have a ‘first-mover advantage’?
- Are there any barriers to entry of new firms into the discount voucher market? If so, what are they? What are the implications of your answer for the future of Groupon?