Wonga to Announce Huge Losses … Could Credit Unions Fill the Gap?

A report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the UK’s credit unions should be expanded as a major source of affordable ethical lending; and the expansion should be financed by a levy on the consumer credit industry. The report received wide support from religious leaders. Continue reading


I’ve been following articles and blog posts by Jeff Prestridge; he’s personal finance editor of Financial Mail on Sunday, thus a pretty influential guy. And he’s said some very complimentary things lately about the building society sector, especially by contrast with major banks. If I were in charge of media relations at one of those banks, I’d have found it uncomfortable reading.

One of his articles was in “Moneywise” (May 2011); on the front cover, the piece was flagged up with the words “why selfish banks put themselves first” and my first reaction was that this was just another blast at the major banks; justified, maybe, but not news. Well, yes, but there was more: a good-news story about building societies.

Customer service excellence

Prestridge’s title praised the excellent customer service records of two particular building societies, especially by contrast with the majority of banks. They were Coventry Building Society, a mutually-owned bank, and Yorkshire Building Society, who are the country’s second-largest building society, with assets of £30 billion.  That’s small by comparison with the £1.9 trillion assets of RBS in 2008, making it then the world’s largest company (did you know that?), but large by most other measures.

(I knew RBS’s total assets were larger than the entire GDP of the UK, then £1.7 trillion, but largest company in the world? As John Lanchester says in his fascinating book (see below), that’s “freakishly large”. Yet we had to bail them out. That’s scary)

Both scored highly in several categories of Moneywise’s own Customer Service Survey Awards but they were nonetheless profitable organisations. The article’s title was “Banks that look after us look after themselves”, the point being that caring for the customer makes commercial sense.

Executive pay restraint

The article also compares top management pay packages. Ian Corning, CEO of Yorkshire BS, donated both his entire 2010 bonus and his annual increase to the Society’s charitable foundation. That compares very favourably with the well-known and astronomical levels of pay and bonuses at the top clearing banks. (at RBS, bonus of £4.5 million, apart from salary).

According to a Bank of England study by Andrew Haldane and quoted by Lanchester, the bank directors were paying themselves these monster bonuses simply as result of taking bigger punts; “there was no skill, efficiency, intelligence or judgment involved: just riskier bets”. And we all know who picked up the tab if the bets went wrong: the taxpayer.

Compared with this, the relative restraint at the building societies seems even more admirable.


Because Moneywise is a monthly, Jeff Prestridge must have written that piece in April. Writing slightly later, i.e. for the Mail on Sunday’s 8 May edition, he says, talking pithily about the PPI scandal:

“Payment protection insurance has been a blot on the financial services landscape for far too long. It has angered those who bought it only to discover it wasn’t worth the paper its terms and conditions were written on.

It has nearly brought the Financial Ombudsman Service to its knees dealing with a deluge of complaints. And it has done untold damage to the already tarnished reputation of the banks that sold it by the shovelful.”

He then goes on, by contrast:

“BUILDING societies remain a key part of the financial landscape, providing consumers with a much-needed alternative to the banks, especially in the savings and stricken mortgage markets.

Although the credit crunch has not left the industry untouched, resulting in a bout of consolidation (that will continue for a while), there are signs that some bigger societies are emerging from the financial crisis stronger than ever.

Yorkshire and Coventry are leading the way. Both have managed to absorb smaller stressed societies into their fold over the past three years – Barnsley, Chelsea and probably Norwich & Peterborough by the end of the year in the case of Yorkshire, while Coventry has snapped up Stroud & Swindon.

Crucially, they have managed to do this without compromising either customer service or the competitiveness of their products.

The strength of these two organisations is such that both have declared an interest in acquiring Northern Rock – complete with 75 branches – from the taxpayer.

Given that the building society industry has survived the crunch with its reputation intact and without falling back on taxpayers for support (the demise of Dunfermline was its only blemish), it would be a great fillip for the sector and great news for consumers if Northern Rock (once a building society) were to be remutualised.

As David Webster, outgoing chairman of the Building Societies Association, said last week at its conference in Birmingham, building societies are primarily customer-focused businesses – which sets them apart from most banks (Metro excepted).”


At the end of his “Moneywise” article, Prestridge concluded: “Given a choice between Yorkshire, Coventry and any of the big banks, I know where my money would go any day. To the Coventry and the Yorkshire. They care about you – rather than themselves.”


I think he makes the point very well that this is enlightened self-interest; by caring for the customer they help themselves build a more sustainable business. What a pity not all businesses view the world in those terms.


Jeff Prestridge’s 8 May article in the Mail on Sunday: http://www.fmwf.com/media-type/ask-an-expert/2011/05/jeff-prestridge-banks-must-end-the-ppi-debacle-to-win-our-trust/

John Lanchester’s book “Whoops: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay”: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whoops-Why-everyone-owes-one/dp/1846142857/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1305882016&sr=1-2

“Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, is available on the following retail sites:

Kindle Store: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004PLMAQM

Smashwords store for other e-formats, including .pdf: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/22886


I loved the contribution by Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, on “The Week in Westminster” (BBC Radio 4) yesterday (13.11) morning. I am not a supporter of her party, nor am I that well informed on the green agenda, but every time I hear her speak I am impressed. She talks a lot of sense; moreover in a courteous way, even when confronted with the leading questions beloved of interviewers, such as this one: “ … are you not coming to the conclusion that you alone can make no difference …?”

The Commons had been discussing economic growth; Ms Lucas wanted the debate to be wider but felt she was the only MP who believed we should look at the quality of growth. She went on to say: “How useful is GDP as a real measure of that growth? Are we better off?”

I agree totally. To take solely the relationship between GDP and jobs, I wrote in a blog post on 27 October, when a higher-than-predicted monthly GDP growth was in the news: “However … a growth in GDP does not necessarily – and quickly – improve the lot of the majority of people in this country, particularly those who are already in debt or who face losing their jobs as a result of the recently-announced spending cuts. Our economy is still rather dependent on relatively non-labour-intensive sectors, e.g. financial services, so today’s good news is “necessary but not sufficient”.

Can you measure happiness?

So Caroline Lucas asks, “are we better off?” Back in “the good old days”, i.e. before the credit crunch and the recession, there were several studies (including those quoted in Oliver James’ famous book “Britain on the Couch”) showing that British citizens’ self-perceived levels of happiness (or contentment or well-being, call it what you will) had not increased over the previous 50 years even though, by every financial measure, we were indeed all greatly “better off”.

OK, let’s leave aside this hard-to-measure or even impossible-to-measure quality of happiness, or maybe the spiritual wealth of the nation if you like. Are there other measures than GDP with which we could assess the economic wealth of the nation? I don’t know the answer but I’d love to hear your views.

UK plc as a company: turnover? profit? What else?

For example: years ago, when I was in the chemical industry, I remember an Irish customer of mine saying, as his annual financial results were published: “Turnover is vanity; profit is sanity.”

Isn’t the GDP of a country somewhat analogous to the turnover of a company, being the sum of its outputs? So what might be the equivalent of profit for “UK plc”? What measures of “added value” could we track?

Obviously our government is supposed to do more than deliver profit to shareholders, so how best can it – and we – measure how good a job it is doing? As Ms Lucas’s question implies, GDP is not the only measure.

“Answers on a postcard”. As they used to say, back in the day.


For a link to Caroline Lucas’s interview on “The Week in Westminster”, go to: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00vv0dv#p00c4mrs

For information on “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, go to www.back-to-the-black.com


My thanks to the charity Credit Action for their latest credit data.

Previously, on my blog …

The last time I blogged about this, I reported that the “write-off rate” on consumer lending by UK monetary financial institutions to individuals increased further in the second quarter 2010 to 7.4%. In that quarter, UK banks and building societies wrote off £3.47bn, most of which was credit card debt.
Secondly, Credit Action reported that average household debt in the UK was £8,590 (excluding mortgages). They went on to say that “this figure increases to £17,896 if the average is based on the number of households who actually have some form of unsecured loan.”

That second statement puzzles me; I don’t agree with the idea of giving a second average that includes only those who have debts. An average is an average, including the highs and the lows and everything in between. If we exclude those with the very lowest debts (i.e. zero), then we should also exclude all those with the very highest debts, i.e. all of the “outliers”.

By the way, if one included mortgage debt, then average household debt in the UK was then about £56,690.

The report concluded that total UK personal debt at the end of August 2010 stood at £1,428bn, a slight increase.

Now for the update

The latest Credit Action report, which I received last week, still gives the second-quarter figure for the write-off rate on consumer lending, i.e. 7.4%; presumably the third-quarter figure is not yet available.

Total lending in September 2010 rose by £0.4bn; secured lending increased by £0.1bn in the month; consumer credit lending increased but only by £0.3bn. (a step-change from pre-recession days: total lending in Jan 2008 grew by £8.4bn)

Total consumer credit lending to individuals at the end of September 2010 was £216bn. The annual growth rate of consumer credit increased 0.3% to 0.6%.

Average household debt in the UK is ~ £8,562 (excluding mortgages). Again, they add, “this figure increases to £17,838 if the average is based on the number of households who actually have some form of unsecured loan.” Again, I find that second figure rather artificial.

Total average household debt in the UK (including mortgages) is approx £57,737; that’s an increase but only a very small one.

Your debt or the country’s debt?

If you thought that figure was highish, the report goes on to say that “if you add to this the March 2010 budget report figure for public sector net debt (PSND) expected in 2015-16 (excluding financial interventions) then this figure rises to £109,960 per household.” Sorry, but that is rather a jump of logic; the PSND is not my personal responsibility, although I would indeed be worried if I thought Mr Osborne would send the bailiffs round to ensure I cough up my share of the UK debt. Thus I feel this excellent report is slightly compromised by making the raw data appear worse through this addition.

And another thing … that last calculation is based not on current government borrowing but the projection for 2015-16; a lot can happen before then. “Things can only get better”, as the song says; at least I hope they will. Let’s hope, in particular, that the PSND in five years is lower than that prediction.

Back to the present

Finally, and if we deal solely in current and personal realities, total UK personal debt at the end of September 2010 stood at £1,455bn; as you can see, that’s a further slight increase. Based on their latest report, the people at Credit Action can still make the same statement that I quoted in my book “Back to the Black”. In their words: “Individuals owe more than what the whole country produces in a year.”
It is sincerely to be hoped that this worrying statement will be short-lived, and that GDP will continue to rise and personal indebtedness will start to fall.

To find out more about my new book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, go to www.back-to-the-black.com


The UK’s economy grew at 0.8% between July and September according to official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That growth is double the 0.4% expected by most analysts.

“This is the second major GDP growth surprise in a row and suggests that the UK economy is more resilient than many had feared,” said James Knightley, economist at ING.

“The government will no doubt take this as a sign that the private sector can fill the gap created by public sector cuts, but with consumer confidence, hiring intentions surveys and housing activity data all softening we remain cautious.”

The key is that phrase “hiring intentions”. I am a glass-half-full person, so I like to focus on the facts that the GDP increase is double what was expected and that it’s the strongest third-quarter figure in a decade, according to the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders.

However … a growth in GDP does not necessarily – and quickly – improve the lot of the majority of people in this country, particularly those who are already in debt or who face losing their jobs as a result of the recently-announced spending cuts. Our economy is still rather dependent on relatively non-labour-intensive sectors, e.g. financial services, so today’s good news is “necessary but not sufficient”.

Until those “hiring intentions surveys” also show a rise, there will still be large numbers of people going into bankruptcy or taking out an IVA (a Protected Trust Deed in Scotland).

I too was in that situation not so long ago. However I found another way, which I detail in my book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way.”

What is also encouraging is that construction seems to be showing the strongest gains in the last couple of quarters, as this would lead to job creation more than some other sectors.

To quote Stephanie Flanders again: “There is still plenty to worry about in this recovery: much of it beyond our shores, and beyond the government or the Bank of England’s control. But for today at least, I think we’re allowed to join the cabinet in a sigh of relief.”

Here’s a link to that Stephanie Flanders piece: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/stephanieflanders/2010/10/good_news_on_gdp.html

If you want to know more about how I personally escaped the threat of bankruptcy and IVA and found another way, go to www.back-to-the-black.com