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The credit card “sweatbox” and stagnant wages: life in the UK

The ‘sweatbox’ model of credit card lending was set out in a well-known article by Ronald Mann in 2007 (here) . Credit card companies through the use of sophisticated data could make substantial profits from individuals who had difficulties in repaying or were financially distressed. Although certain of these accounts would be written off,  the overall profits  from the various fees and costs levied on individuals who are locked in to an existing lender and struggling to repay were substantial. This sweatbox model benefited from the 2005 reforms to US bankruptcy law which delayed the ability of individuals to file for bankruptcy, extending the time an individual was in the sweatbox of increased financial distress.

Recent studies by the Financial Conduct Authority suggests that the sweatbox model is alive and well in the UK (here and here).  The Authority highlighted two issues. First  a significant group of borrowers carry potentially problematic debt for a number of years with some making repeated minimum payments. Second, they identified a higher risk  group who move swiftly from acquiring a credit card into potentially problematic personal debt.  A  quarter of cards opened in 2013  in this market segment were in serious or severe arrears a year later.  Over 20 percent with serious arrears did not have an active card in 2012 suggesting a ‘rapid descent into arrears’.  The FCA noted in an understatement that these data raise  problems about  the affordability assessments which companies are required to undertake of potential customers. A product which results in a  failure rate of 25 percent would normally not be permitted on the market.

These findings on the use of credit cards must be set in the economic context of the UK with relatively stagnant real wages for many, insecure employment and currently the lowest savings level (3.3 percent) since 1963.  Many writers have underlined how loans may substitute for stagnant wages but that this cannot be a long term fix for the economy.

The FCA propose several behavioural remedies for consumers and earlier intervention by creditors to address persistent arrears. However the ability to write-off debt swiftly would provide a way out for debtors and complement other techniques such as responsible lending. Unfortunately the complexity of current debt write down procedures (IVAs, debt management programmes, bankruptcy, Debt Relief Orders) in England and Wales make this more difficult. A damning report by the FCA on the debt advice industry (here) indicates that advisors often did not give balanced information about insolvency alternatives.

Credit card use raise wider questions about the contemporary role of credit in the UK.  The governor of the Bank of England introduced a recent  financial stability report  with a concern about existing vulnerabilities from high and rising UK household indebtedness. On April 4 the Bank of England Financial Policy Committee noted the continuing rapid growth in consumer credit (here).  At the same time the  respected Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that based on the Autumn  2016 budget statement  real wages will, remarkably, still be below their 2008 levels in 2021. One cannot stress enough how dreadful that is – more than a decade  without real earnings growth. We have certainly not seen a period remotely like it in the last 70 years’

The Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded also that middle income families with children are no longer so different from the poor: almost half middle income families are now renters (home ownership in the UK has reduced from 72 % in 2007 to 64% in 2016 ) and middle income families with children get 30% of their income from benefits and tax credits. This means that credit use is likely to increase as middle to lower income earners use it as a defensive strategy to maintain living standards . Austerity also means individuals having difficulties with current commitments such as utilities and council tax, described by the Institute of Fiscal Studies as a tax ‘deliberately regressive in design’.

These conditions fuel the growth of sweatbox lending and the resulting household misery for some. Solutions may require action at micro- and macro- level. But there is no doubt that action is necessary.

More questions raised by Individual Voluntary Arrangement Statistics

The Insolvency Service published (here) on 27th January  further statistics on Individual Voluntary Arrangements.

The latest IVA statistics (here) indicate that  40 percent  of  IVAs commenced in 2007 were terminated (ie not completed). Although this reduced to 32% in 2009, ten percent of IVAs commenced that year are still ongoing.

A government programme with a failure rate close to 40 percent would result in parliamentary questions, an investigation by the government and possibly radical change. In a previous post I suggested further investigation was necessary of  the role of Individual Voluntary Arrangements.

The Insolvency Service data also indicate that the IVA industry is now dominated by a few providers. Two firms have 50% of new IVAs in 2016 and ten firms over 80%.

We know little about whether these repayment plans are effective treatments for overindebtedness.  Unfortunately there seems little interest in attempting to fill this gaping hole in empirical knowledge of the insolvency system. Policy making on IVAs is effectively privatised through low visibility committees (here) dominated by creditors and intermediaries. Perhaps the Financial Conduct Authority  should take a greater interest.

In my forthcoming book (here) I describe English policymaking on personal insolvency since the 1980s as ‘drift, layering and conversion’. The consumer IVA represents the private conversion by enterprising accountants of a remedy designed for corporate directors and businesses  to a mass-produced remedy for consumers. It is time that there was a proper appraisal of whether it serves the public interest. The government seems willing to review corporate insolvency(here) but demonstrates little interest in a comprehensive review of the byzantine personal insolvency law  landscape in England and Wales.

Should Households repay their debts?

This post is a video. Here at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sCAG3Cn0O0&index=24&list=PL_voamVqJ_ZyVoZdGh4ov5u1PseEJxwEX



Greek household insolvency reform–Troika style

One aspect of the memorandum of understanding between the EU and Greece in mid-August  2015 concerns reform of  Greek household insolvency law with Greece being required to modify its existing law and administration.

Greece introduced a personal insolvency law in 2010. This  included a mandatory pre-judicial settlement procedure and a repayment period of  4 years before a discharge.  It also permitted under certain circumstances an individual to remain in her primary residence provided she repaid 80% of the value of the home over 20 years. The law was hardly a debtor’s charter and was based on the defective German personal insolvency law (see e.g. criticisms by Backert et al here) .

It was predictable therefore that the Greek law would face initial problems in implementation. The pre-judicial settlement phase rarely resulted in an agreement. Consumer groups attributed this to the intransigence of the banks but it is also possible that limited specialist advice existed for consumers and no guidelines existed for negotiations. Courts were ill equipped to address bankruptcy issues, free legal advice was not available and the courts became overloaded.  Individuals might have to wait years–even in extreme cases until 2024!– for a hearing.  These failures on a smaller scale were experienced by France and Germany when they initially introduced individual insolvency laws without thinking through the proper infrastructure for administering large numbers of cases of individuals with few assets.

Greece also introduced in substance a moratorium on foreclosures of primary residences under a certain value.

In face of  increasing levels  of non-performing loans (not surprising in the light of the austerity measures) the IMF concluded in 2012 that the Greek law was a failure. They claimed that the blanket protection of the moratorium resulted in ‘strategic default’ and moral hazard. Greece duly agreed to change its law, substituting targeted relief for ‘vulnerable debtors’ so as to minimize moral hazard and modernize the Act in line with ‘best practices in the EU’.  When the Syriza government was elected it proposed to reintroduce the moratorium while at the same time pursuing strategic defaulters.

The agreement of August 2015 imposes a battery of  reform obligations on Greece with a demanding timetable. The obligations  include:  establishing a stricter screening process to deter ‘strategic defaulters’, tightening the eligibility criteria for protection of the primary residence, introducing measures to address the backlog of cases, short form procedures for debtors with no income or assets, developing specialised court chambers for individual and corporate insolvency and training additional judges, establishing a regulated insolvency profession in line with ‘good cross-country experience’, reactivating the government council of private debt, amending the out of court procedure to encourage debtors to participate while ensuring fairness among creditors. Debt to public agencies will now  be dischargeable and the discharge period for entrepreneurs reduced to three years in line with the EU recommendation of 2014. This process of reform will draw on ‘independent expertise’, external consultants and ‘cross country experience’. Greece commits to review the process of reform by mid 2016.

The policies are a mixture of  potentially progressive ideas and less well thought out reforms. The introduction of a swift no-income-no-assets procedure and the inclusion of public creditors in the discharge are welcome. Stricter screening criteria are likely to be problematic in implementation and deter those in genuine need. It is not a simple matter to distinguish ‘strategic’ from ‘good faith debtors’.  Such measures taken in a crisis may not be dismantled after the crisis, having a long-term detrimental impact on access to insolvency.

This imposition of reforms by the EU raises concerns (for a trenchant critique of the provisions see  Yanis Varoufakis here) .  Technocratic knowledge substitutes for democratic decision-making. One might feel less unhappy  if the technical expertise was based on sound empirical studies and well-tested theories of insolvency administration. However, data were never presented on the level of ‘strategic defaulting’ taking place or the extent of ‘moral hazard’ in Greece.  Increases in non-performing loans do not necessarily equate with large increases in strategic default. The abstract economic categories  of strategic behaviour and moral hazard may not be helpful for understanding  the situation of a country in crisis.  I do not doubt that some strategic default existed but the Troika and IMF never provided data on its extent. Given the absence of a  ‘scientific’ basis for the EU requirements what is  the source of legitimacy for the insolvency norms being imposed? Unlike business insolvency where the UNCITRAL guidelines are used to measure a country’s insolvency law,  no international standards exist for individual insolvency. The IMF recognised this fact in 2013. Yet by 2015 the EU is appealing to ‘best practices’ and ‘cross-country experience’ (without identifying countries or why they represent best practice) in justifying its imposition on Greece of particular insolvency norms. In truth, given the absence of international norms, the IMF in their work on personal insolvency reform in Europe have been ‘making it up’ as they go, with changing scripts depending on the ability of the country to resist IMF pressure.   It is unlikely that Greece will be able to meet the demanding time line for  introducing insolvency reforms, such as the creation of an effective infrastructure of courts.  Creating a well-functioning bankruptcy infrastructure is not a short-term task. It is as if Greece has been set up to fail.


Damning report on debt management advice by Financial Conduct Authority–need for comprehensive review of insolvency alternatives

The FCA published on Thursday 25th June a damning thematic review on the quality of debt management advice, concluding that the quality of advice was of an ‘unacceptably low standard’.   Advisors often did not  make an adequate assessment of individuals’ revenues and expenditures  or give balanced information about insolvency alternatives.  For example, they often reinforced customers’ initial reluctance to consider bankruptcy and played on misconceptions about bankruptcy to deter them from this alternative. The FCA reported ‘many instances where customers were recommended very long-term debt management plans (often many decades…) when debt relief solutions are likely to have been more appropriate but adequate information and advice was not provided”(para 4.55). In one case a debt advisor failed to correct a debtor’s misconception  about the effects of bankruptcy and recommended a debt management plan lasting 125 years! Firms often had incentive structures for selling debt solutions.

The study was primarily of the fee-charging debt management industry but it was also critical of those firms providing free debt advice to consumers, indicating that there was ‘scope for material improvement’.

These findings are perhaps not surprising given the continuing concerns expressed about practices by some debt management companies by Parliamentary Committees and the Office of Fair Trading.  Studies in other countries have raised similar concerns. In a recent  article Stephanie Ben-Ishai and Saul Schwartz studied how not-for-profit  Credit Counselling Agencies in Canada gave advice to individuals with debt problems. Using carefully scripted mystery calls to credit counselling agencies  Ben-Ishai and Schwartz found that the agencies surveyed  did not present the options for dealing with a debtor’s financial in a complete and impartial manner and did not present bankruptcy as a viable option. The focus was on ‘fitting the caller into the requirements’ of a debt management plan. They concluded that although the agencies portray themselves as debtor-friendly they operate rather as collection agents.

A fundamental concern in England and Wales raised by the FCA report is whether these practices by debt management companies are  undermining public policy on debt relief by steering individuals to debt management plans rather than permitting individuals to make a ‘fresh start’ through bankruptcy or a debt relief order and becoming productive again. Joseph Spooner and myself have commented elsewhere on whether England and Wales has struck the right balance between the wide variety of repayment plans, sometimes lasting many years, and the straight discharge of most debts. Almost one-third of Individual Voluntary Arrangements fail to complete. Many individuals may choose a repayment plan because they assume it will be better for their credit rating (and they may be able to retain their home) but credit reference agencies make little distinction between bankrupts and those who have been on repayment plans. The complexity of the English system with its many alternatives also creates difficulties for individuals choosing the best option, and increases the power of private and public intermediaries in the system, whose financial incentives may not align with public interest concerns.

How useful is debt counselling in bankruptcy?

Several countries (Canada, US, Scotland)  now include debt counselling as part of the  individual bankruptcy process but evidence is limited as to its beneficial impact.

Many official inquiries have supported the integration of counselling in the debt enforcement system.  In the 1960s and 70s  counselling was justified  by the  perception of a debtor as needing assistance in managing her financial affairs and possibly having wider problems in coping with life.  The English Payne Committee (1970)  proposed a social service office for debtors as part of a state enforcement office based on ‘abundant evidence that many debtors incur and fail to pay their debts because they are inadequate personalities or irresponsible in managing their affairs… They need to be assisted to financial health and stability.” (para 1210) Social workers would ‘perform for financially incompetent or inadequate or irresponsible debtors, the functions which are discharged for more successful members of the community by bank managers, accountants or solicitors’ (1216).   The influential Brookings Commission study (1971) in the US  proposed that financial counselling should be available to all debtors after finding  that 31 percent of debtors attributed their problems to poor debt management,  and  the US Bankruptcy Commission(1973) proposed that access to bankruptcy should be dependent on a debtor receiving counseling by the new administrative  agency which would administer the bankruptcy process. The Bankruptcy Reform Act 1978 contained no formal requirement for counselling. The US National Bankruptcy Commission in the late 1990s endorsed the introduction of counseling on a voluntary basis.

Canada pioneered in 1992 the legislative  introduction of two counseling sessions during bankruptcy for individual bankrupts (see here).  The objective was to prevent repeat bankruptcies and to further rehabilitative goals of behavior modification.  The Insolvency regulator (Office of Superintendent of Bankruptcy), debt counselling agencies and the Canadian Bankers Association supported its introduction.   In Canada the trustee (or their delegate) must now: (1) make a pre bankruptcy assessment outlining options including that of a consumer proposal (repayment of a portion of debt usually over three years), (2) provide an initial counseling session shortly after bankruptcy is declared entitled consumer and credit education and (3) a second session shortly before discharge which normally takes place nine months after the declaration of bankruptcy. Counselling is financed by a fee which comes out of the bankruptcy estate– $85 for each stage of counselling-usually made from income payments by bankrupt. Ninety percent of the sessions last under one hour. Counselling is  a condition for receiving a  discharge. The current Directive (OSB 1R3) defines it as ‘educating debtors on good financial management practices, including the prudent use of consumer credit and budgeting principles, developing successful strategies for achieving financial goals and overcoming financial setbacks and where appropriate making referrals to deal with non-budgetary causes of insolvency (ie gambling, addiction, marital and family problems)’.

Has the Canadian system of counselling achieved its objectives? It is difficult to measure this rigorously because one ideally  needs a  control group who go through  the process without counseling.  In early reviews  bankrupts generally were favourable in their assessments of counseling.  But does counselling change behavior or result in fewer repeat bankruptcies?  The only rigorous study of the Canadian system using a control group, conducted  by Saul Schwartz and published in the American Bankruptcy Law journal in 2003,  concluded that counseling did not lead to ‘any appreciable improvement in future creditworthiness’ and ‘has little effect on repeat bankruptcies in the first five years after an initial bankruptcy filing’. In Canada the overall repeat filing rate has increased from 10 percent in 2002 to 15 percent in 2011 and 16 percent in 2012.  Notwithstanding these data a recent evaluation  in 2013 by the Canadian Department of Industry argues that counselling has a positive impact because ‘debtors found the sessions useful’. The report  admits that ‘determining the effectiveness of mandatory counseling is challenging because it is difficult to disentangle the results of two counseling sessions from the broader changes that occur in a bankruptcy or insolvency’.  The study  suggests some short-term changes in understanding and behavior by debtors and notes that repeat bankrupts were slightly less likely to cite overuse of credit as a reason for bankruptcy. But the study is hardly a ringing endorsement for mandatory counselling for all bankrupts.

In the US the  2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA)  introduced mandatory counselling  at the pre-bankruptcy stage as an eligibility condition for filing for bankruptcy and also  required bankrupts to undertake a financial education course during bankruptcy as a condition of receiving a discharge.   Pre-bankruptcy counselling is premised on the assumption that debtors turned too quickly to bankruptcy as a solution for their problems.  The Act is vague on the contents of the financial education course but the Federal US trustee has promulgated rules   which indicate that the course must include budget development, money management, wise use of credit (including distinguishing wants from needs), consumer protection, and coping with unexpected financial crisis. The financial education course must last a minimum of two hours  but may be completed in person, over the phone, or through the Internet.

Michael Sousa  in a recent article surveys existing  pre- and post- BAPCPA studies of voluntary counselling in bankruptcy.  He also  presents the results  of a qualitative study of  the effects of the BAPCPA counselling requirements.  Most debtors did not find the courses helpful. Pre-bankruptcy counseling was just ‘jumping through hoops’.  It did not have the consequences hoped for by Congress–where debtors rethought their decision and entered a debt management plan. Rather it either confirmed the correctness of  an individual’s decision  to file for bankruptcy  or helped to allay any fears about declaring bankruptcy.  Most debtors thought that a two-hour financial education course was not enough to provide long-term effects and in any event was  often inappropriate since many  individuals filed for bankruptcy because of  external economic changes unrelated to financial capability. Sousa concluded that the existing BAPCPA counselling requirements  are ‘by and large misguided and are in desperate need of overhaul and reform’.

Scotland  recently introduced counselling in the 2014  Bankruptcy and Debt Advice (Scotland) Act which Act will, according to the relevant Minister, Fergus Ewing,  deliver ‘the most significant change to the bankruptcy process in Scotland for a generation and take us closer to making the financial health service a reality’ (more on this claim in a subsequent blog).  Individuals must consult a money advisor before obtaining access to any  statutory debt relief. The policy objective is that of ensuring that individuals are aware of all debt relief options, although I suspect that it is partly motivated by the objective of ensuring that individuals do not enter too easily into writing down debt rather than the statutory Debt Arrangement Scheme which will generally require full repayment (again more about this on a further blog).   Financial education during bankruptcy is not mandatory for all debtors.  Only repeat bankrupts within the previous 5 years,  or debtors subject to  a bankruptcy restriction order made against them must undertake a course.  In other cases a trustee may refer a debtor to a financial education course where  ‘the trustee considers that the pattern of behavior is such that the debtor would benefit from a financial education course or the debtor agrees to undertake a financial education course.’  The Scottish legislation recognises that counselling is not necessary for all debtors. This suggests that legislators do learn something from comparative experience, since they seemed to be  aware of the criticisms of the US provisions.

England and Wales rejected  counselling in the 2002 reforms primarily because most groups consulted opposed its introduction. Debtors may therefore experience a variety of advice before and during insolvency,  depending on whether they seek advice in the public sector through Citizens Advice Bureaux,  non-profit debt counselling such as Step Change, or a private intermediary.

The UK is sometimes contrasted with continental Europe where it is assumed that a more ‘social’ approach exists to counselling debtors. But this is not the case. Counselling is not an integral part of the French process. Although debt counsellors play a central role in Germany, the large demand for their services means that they function more as processors rather than being able to provide substantial financial counselling. In Sweden, a recent official report was very critical of the standards of debt counselling which are operated by municipalities.

Debt counselling in bankruptcy is a programme which in the abstract can attract a broad support.  It is a policy around which a coalition of creditor, consumer and debt counselling interests can agree, and for regulators it gives a sense of purpose to the bankruptcy system–so the Scots view it as  part of a  ‘financial health system’. It is likely therefore to continue to be attractive but experience suggests an unwillingness by governments to invest significant resources in the project.

The credit counselling requirements are often  based on the assumption that bankruptcy is a consequence of imprudent or unwise use of credit or the need for individuals to adapt their credit behaviour to more desirable norms. But this is clearly not the case for many debtors who are subject to adverse changes of circumstances, unforeseen health costs or small business failures.




Beyond the active and passive debtor: New study by Bank of France

Policy making in bankruptcy is driven by assumptions about debtors and their reasons for over-indebtedness. If debtors are assumed to be imprudent or unable to manage their finances then financial education might be a solution. If the primary reason is unemployment or a change of circumstances then budgeting advice may be of little assistance and a better safety net could be developed. During the 1990s and noughties the Bank of  France regularly published statistics on the reasons for overindebtedness. They divided the reasons into two categories; active and passive overindebtedness. The former included over-spending and bad budget management, the latter unemployment, divorce/separation and illness. By the mid 1990s  it appeared that passive over-indebtedness dominated the reasons for overindebtedness. This finding had several policy implications. First, it meant that neither creditors nor debtors could be blamed for overindebtedness. It provided common ground between creditors and consumer groups.  Consumer groups argued that the growth in those using the over-indebtedness commissions reflected the fraying French social safety net. The dominance of passive over-indebtedness also justified greater liberality in discharge of debts.    Debtors were not attempting to take advantage of the system but rather were victims of circumstances beyond their control. Financial institutions could argue that it was not necessary to introduce positive credit reporting (see discussion here) because problem debt arose as a consequence of events which occurred after credit was granted

The active/passive distinction depended on both the validity and reliability of the Bank of France statistics and the coherence of the distinction.  In 2010 the Cour Des Comptes (National Audit Office) published a searing criticism of the validity and reliability of the Bank statistics. For example, if a person was divorced the Bank seemed to always classify them  as passively indebted even if the divorce occurred many years before the debt problems! More fundamentally the Audit Office questioned the coherence of the simple active/passive distinction since there might often be a combination of events which leads to an inability to repay. As a consequence of this critique the Bank stopped publishing statistics in its surveys of debtors on the reasons for the over-indebtedness.

The Bank has now published a new study on the paths leading to over-indebtedness, conducted by a consultancy firm. This provides a more complex typology of reasons for individuals using the over-indebtedness commissions. Unemployment or reduced employment (23%); budget constraints (17%), and  inappropriate use  of credit (14%) are significant reasons.  But the  largest percentage (41 percent) represent a conjuncture of events including  a change of circumstances with some individuals not adjusting effectively their budgets to these changes. Some of the budget constrained group also seemed to make impulsive purchases.  A comparison group of similar individuals who had not accessed the Commission seemed to manage their budgets slightly more effectively.  An underlying theme in the report is that behavioural limitations of debtors are a significant driver of a spiral of over-indebtedness. The Bank uses these findings  to justify greater financial literacy education, which of course has become a worldwide crusade.

The findings deserve more extended scrutiny than is possible in this blog.  What is most interesting however is  how the French policy making community managed to sustain for so long the defective active/passive distinction and its implications for policy making.   A characteristic of  the development of French policy making on overindebtedness is its management by the French technocracy through the Bank of France and Consultative Committees. Dialogue takes place within these groups, with critiques coming from within the technocracy (such as the Cour des Comptes). The absence of non-state initiated studies of bankrupts  in France, and the limited role of interdisciplinary studies in the French legal academy reinforce this approach.  This means that the overt ‘war of ideas’, which characterised  US bankruptcy policy making in the period before the Bankruptcy Abuse and Consumer Prevention Act of 2005, does not occur in France.  In my forthcoming book (here) I compare these different policy styles, and the role of social science knowledge within them, as part of understanding the paths of bankruptcy law development in these countries.