The payday lending sector is under scrutiny again after the Australian Securities and Investment Commission’s investigation into Nimble.
After failing to meet responsible lending obligations, Nimble must refund more than 7,000 customers, at a cost of more than $1.5 million. Aside from the refunds, Nimble must also pay $50,000 to Financial Counselling Australia.
Are these penalties enough to change the practices of Nimble and similar lenders?
It’s very unlikely, given these refunds represent a very small proportion of Nimble’s small loan business – 1.2% of its approximately 600,000 loans over two years (July 1, 2013 – July 22, 2015).
The National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009 and small amount lending provisions play a critical role in protecting vulnerable consumers. Credit licensees, for example, are required to “take reasonable steps to verify the consumer’s financial situation” and the suitability of the credit product. That means a consumer who is unlikely to be able to afford to repay a loan should be deemed “unsuitable”.
The problem is, regulation is just one piece of a complex puzzle in protecting consumers.
1. It’s going to be difficult for the regulator to keep pace with a booming supply
Nimble ranked 55th in the BRW Fast 100 2014 list with revenue of almost $37 million and growth of 63%. In just six months in 2014, Cash Converters’ online lending increased by 42% to $44.6 million. And in February 2016, Money3 reported a $7 million increase in revenue after purchasing the online lender Cash Train.
2. Consumers need to have high levels of financial literacy to identify and access appropriate and affordable financial products and services.
The National Financial Literacy Strategy, Money Smart and Financial Counselling Australia, among other providers and initiatives, aim to improve the financial literacy of Australians, but as a country we still have significant progress to make. According to the Financial Literacy Around the World report, 36% of adults in Australia are not financially literate.
3. The demand for small loans is high and yet there are insufficient supply alternatives to payday lending in the market.
The payday loan sector dominates supply. Other options, such as the Good Shepherd Microfinance No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS) or StepUP loans, are relatively small in scale. As we’ve noted previously, to seriously challenge the market, realistic alternatives must be available and be accessible, appropriate and affordable.
4. Demand is not likely to decrease.
People who face financial adversity but cannot access other credit alternatives will continue to seek out payday loans.
ACOSS’s Poverty in Australia Report 2014 found that 2.5 million Australians live in poverty. Having access to credit alone is not going to help financially vulnerable Australians if they experience an economic shock and need to borrow money, but lack the economic capacity to meet their financial obligations.
Social capital can be an important resource in these situations. For example, having family or friends to reach out to. This can help when an unexpected bill, such as a fridge, washing machine or car repair, is beyond immediate financial means. Yet, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics General Social Survey, more than one in eight (13.1%) people are unable to raise $2,000 within a week for something important.
Coupled with regulation, these different puzzle pieces all play an important role in influencing the entire picture: regulators and regulation; the supply of accessible, affordable and appropriate financial products; the financial literacy and capacity of consumers; people’s economic circumstances; and people’s social capital.
Previous responses to financial vulnerability have often focused on financial inclusion (being able to access appropriate and affordable financial products and services), financial literacy (addressing knowledge and behaviour), providing emergency relief, or regulating the credit market. Dealing with these aspects in silos is insufficient to support vulnerable consumers.
A more holistic response is needed: one that puts the individual at the centre and understands and addresses people’s personal, economic and social contexts. At the same time, it must factor in the role of legislation, the market and technology.
The Turnbull government recently committed to “creat[ing] an environment for Australia’s FinTech sector where it can be internationally competitive”.
With more online lenders coming, it’s important we work towards strengthening people’s financial resilience.
Improving the financial resilience of the population, coupled with strong reinforced regulation, will help to protect financially vulnerable Australians from predatory lenders.
Kristy Muir is a professor of social policy and research director at the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW Australia; Fanny Salignac is a research fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW Australia, and Rebecca Reeve is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW Australia.