This is a case study about why sometimes a costly small loan may be the only way out for certain people, adapted from the report of Trends in the Australian Small Loan Market by the Australian Centre for Financial Studies. I add some discussions and further questions in the end.
Alice is a single mom with children who relies only on Centrelink payments. Her refrigerator suddenly broke and she needs a new one as soon as possible before the frozen food for the family perishes.
A new cheap fridge costs about \$900 from an online retailer, but Alice has no savings so she has to explore some other options.
Credit and Financing Options
Option 1 - Leasing for 48 months with fortnightly payments
A major consumer lease website shows that this fridge can be rented for \$28 per fornight with free delivery on a 48-month lease, excluding fees, charges and insurance. However, the total cost would be \$2,912, more than three times of the price of the fridge.
Option 2 - Buying with a 48-month interest-free plan
Unfortunately she does not have this option as she doesn’t have a qualifying credit card. In fact, she may not even have a credit card.
Option 3 - Advance payments from Centrelink
Alice may try to take out the maximum Centrelink advance payments, which can cover the cost of the fridge. However, in this case she has to forgo about \$70 per fortnight from her Centrelink payments for the next six months. Alice cannot support the whole family with the reduced income.
Option 4 - No interest loan scheme (NILS)
Alternatively, Alice can apply for a two-year NILS loan to buy the new fridge, which costs her about \$18 fortnightly. This is by far the cheapest option. However, she may have to wait for weeks for the loan decision, which is simply too long.
Option 5 - A 12-month small loan
Lastly, Alice can try to apply a small loan (officially Small Amount Credit Contract, or SACC) from a provider that costs her \$60 fortnightly.
The Best Decision
Alice eventually decides to take out a small loan from a FinTech loan provider that can approve the loan and fund it immediately. At first, it is very tempting to take the lease option as it costs only \$28 per fortnight. However, the lease lasts only 4 years and there’s no guarantee that she can keep the fridge afterwards at no extra costs. Taking a small loan is probably the only way out.
I simplified this case study a lot, but we still can see that for an individual who faces considerably limited options and urgent liquidity needs, a costly small loan may be the best choice.
However, as readers can calculate yourself, the effective “interest rate” or cost on the small loan is really really high. In 2017, regulations changed and now lenders are not allowed to charge interest on the loan. Instead, they can only charge:
- a one-off establishment fee of 20% (maximum) of the amount loaned
- a monthly account keeping fee of 4% (maximum) of the amount loaned
- a government fee or charge
- default fees or charges (maximum 200% of the amount loaned)
- enforcement expenses (the costs of the credit provider going to court to recover the money)
Still, putting the establishment fee (20%) and account keeping fee (48% p.a.) together is already overwhelming, let alone the default fees, etc.
The high cost of small loans receives tons of criticism even after the new regulation in 2017. However, is a cap on the costs of small loans indeed a good thing?
This is more than an economic question. I don’t want to discuss a lot about it but one question is that if a small loan with this high cost is still the best option for certain people, where’s wrong? The government, the people, the lenders or someone else? If a cap on loan costs drives some loan providers out of the business, who’s hurt the most? The people in need or the evil lenders?