Cooking the Books 1: Death of a Loan Shark

So Wonga, the notorious payday lender, has gone under. Very few will be shedding a tear. As a payday lender, its business model was to make small, short term unsecured (i.e. with no collateral) loans out of its own money. You could get a loan of £50 for a week if you wanted. Because there was no collateral, e.g. no house or car to repossess, and no serious credit checks, the risk of default and cost of recovering it was higher and so therefore was the rate of interest.

Since 2015, regulations have limited the maximum interest that payday companies can charge to 0.8 percent a day. That’s still quite steep – 80p per day on a loan of £100 for 30 days is about £24. Before that, companies like Wonga – and Wonga in particular – used to charge more than twice as much, with stiff penalty charges for not repaying on time.

One reason why companies like Wonga exist is that banks won’t touch poor people in need of short-term loans. But what is the difference between a moneylender and a bank? Some think that when a bank makes a loan it ‘creates’ money. The reasoning behind this is that, as the amount of the loan will be spent, when it is this adds to total spending. But why is this reasoning not applied to payday lenders or to other lenders such as credit card and car finance companies? Their loans also add to total spending.

One reason why loans by such financial institutions should not be regarded as creating new money is given in a short online article ‘Are credit cards a form of money? Credit cards and the money supply’. The author gives the example of him borrowing money from his girlfriend to buy a video game, and concludes:
‘[M]y debt to my girlfriend would not be considered money because she cannot use it as a form of money to make purchases and it is not trivial to find someone who is willing to pay her cash in exchange for the loan. The loan is a mechanism in which money will be transferred from me to my girlfriend, but the loan is not money itself. When I repay the loan I will pay her $50 which will be in the form of money. If we consider the loan as money and the payment of the loan as money we’re essentially counting the same transaction twice. The $50 my girlfriend pays the shopkeeper is money. The $50 I will pay my girlfriend tomorrow is money, but the obligation I hold between today and tomorrow is not money’ (

This makes sense. The loan, i.e., the IOU to his girlfriend, is not money. What is money is what is used to pay for the video game and that was not ‘created’ but came from the girlfriend.

It’s the same with a credit card. The credit card company pays for what you purchase and you repay by the end of the month. In the case of a payday company, it lends you the money first until your next payday, and when you get paid you pay it back (with interest).

The difference between a bank and other lenders is that they are lending their own money whereas a bank is lending other people’s. This makes following what happens more complicated but the principle is the same. When the borrower buys something out of the bank’s loan, the bank pays for it, normally by a bank transfer to the seller’s bank, just as a credit company does. You pay the bank back later.

How, then, is a bank loan different? Good question.