Since April 2014, when it took over regulation of consumer credit, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has been investigating financial products that it argues pose high risks in the context of its consumer protection remit.
By 2015 it had already imposed a cap on interest rates and fees on short term loans, known as payday lending, and this will be reviewed in the second half of 2017.
However, the ongoing investigation has also been looking at retail bank loans, arranged overdrafts, credit cards and home-collected credit, catalogue credit, some rent-to-own, pawn-broking, guarantor and logbook loans.
This has encompassed not only charges and interest rates but also competition issues in co-operation with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Whether there will be further regulation on lending businesses remains to be seen.
The potential effects on business
The FCA is concerned about the affordability of credit and about borrowers’ ability to repay in the context of high interest charges.
In March this year it proposed new rules to help credit card customers in persistent debt, defined as those who have paid more in interest and charges than they have repaid of their borrowing over an 18-month period. Proposals include options for repaying the balance more quickly, for example by reducing, waiving or cancelling any interest or charges.
Jonathan Davidson, Director of Supervision – retail and authorisations at the FCA, said in a speech in March: “the use of consumer credit in the UK has become so ubiquitous that 60% of adults now have credit cards and 40% are defined as overdraft users…… borrowing in the UK is simply more common, and more socially acceptable, than in many other large economies.” He added that “use of debt to meet unexpected emergencies is also widespread.”
In his view this was a risk that had to be managed. He argued that in some cases firms were making profits even when customers defaulted on loans and said that fair treatment of customers should be a core part of lenders’ business philosophy.
We would argue that some lenders are lending with the intention of triggering a default and incorporating terms that make a default highly beneficial to the lender.
Despite any moral or ethical issues the FCA is dealing with, its remit is consumer protection in what is essentially a free market consumer-driven economy in which businesses and their success depend on the sale of their goods and services in a highly competitive environment.
This applies particularly, but not only, for those businesses, many of them SMEs, that cater to the retail market.
Often, their sales success will depend upon the consumers’ ability to access credit to make purchases, for example for larger items such as household white goods and vehicles.
Arguably, limiting the supply of credit to consumers would make it more difficult for these businesses to survive.
So, is there a fundamental conflict at the heart of the FCA’s existence between ensuring fair charging for consumer credit and the needs of businesses operating in an economy that relies on credit being available?