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Taking the strain

The number of people re-fused credit by mainstream lenders continued to fall in 2002, with the non-standard lending market shrinking by 100,000 to 7.8 million. Yet the value of business in that market grew rapidly from £11bn in 2001 to more than £15bn just 12 months later, a rise of 36%.

The non-standard population has steadily fallen from 8.2 million in 1998, but that still leaves 21% of the UK adult population unable to get credit from mainstream lenders, the 2003 Datamonitor report on the non-standard and sub-prime lending market reveals.

Historically low interest rates and unemployment at 1.5 million (according to the International Labour Organisation definition), have helped improve the credit-worthiness of the population. Economic growth has cut the numbers of arrears and repossessions. There were 6,860 repossessions in the first six months of 2002, compared to 16,980 in the same period in 1997.

As the nightmare years of the early 1990s recede, borrowers&#39 credit profiles have strengthened. During 2001, 700,000 consumer County Court Judgments were registered and 5 million remained on record. In 1995 a massive 1.2 million CCJs were registered and 8.5 million were on record. CCJs remain on an individual&#39s credit file for six years and huge numbers have now expired.

Alex Boorman, Datamonitor&#39s financial services analyst and author of the report, says that while favourable economic conditions have cut the number of CCJs registered and recorded, other factors are at work. “More emphasis has been placed on conciliation and negotiation in recent years, rather than pursuing debtors through the courts. More consumers are therefore able to avoid acquiring CCJs by negotiating with their creditors.”

Once again, the non-standard lending market finds itself growing rapidly despite a shrinking target market. Now worth £15bn, the non-standard or sub-prime market is now worth almost double the £7.4bn it was rated at in 1998.

The non-standard market has tracked the fortunes of the buoyant mainstream mortgage market in recent years, but Datamonitor says other factors are at play. The industry has enjoyed great success in shedding its poor image, which partly stemmed from the problems faced by the City Mortgage Company in the mid-1990s.

Its image has been boosted by the entry of a raft of major financial services players. This has increased compatibility between products offered by non-standard and mainstream lenders, and led to greater acceptance of credit repair, more positive press coverage and less negative terminology than before, Boorman says.

“The entry of large financial conglomerates and mainstream financial institutions has been both a cause and a consequence of the improved image. Companies such as GE Capital, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and Halifax would not have acquired a presence in the non-standard market if they felt doing so would threaten their overall brand. At the same time their presence has given the non-standard market greater credibility and respectability.”

Boorman&#39s report describes non-standard and sub-prime lending as a honey pot, and highlights how the greater margins have proved irresistible to mainstream lenders. “Competition in the mainstream market and the difficulties in maintaining and growing market share, have driven down margins. While rates in the non-standard mortgage market are also falling they nevertheless remain higher, reflecting the higher risk associated with lending to non-standard consumers.”

Recent years have seen waves of big-name entries and acquisitions, including Halifax with BM Solutions, Citigroup with Future Mortgages, GE Capital with igroup, Nikko with Mortgages PLC, Britannia with Platform Home Loans, Skipton Building Society with Amber Home Loans and Nationwide with UCB Home Loans. Such major players have introduced muscle and punching power to the market, while Bristol & West and GMAC Residential Funding have added even more beef. Kensington Mortgages is now listed on the Stock Exchange, which leaves SPML as the last of the independents and the butt of regular takeover gossip.

Lloyds TSB is one of the few big names to have no presence, but the high street bank is now taking tentative steps into non-standard lending, says spokesman Emile Abu-Shakra. It is setting up a pilot scheme in February in around 70 Lloyds TSB and C&G branches, offering mortgages to customers who are not eligible for standard products. “We are testing the market to see if we can improve our offering. We are piloting a referral procedure with Kensington Mortgages and Preferred Mortgages to see if this is the best method of entry.”

Peter Stimson, head of product development at GMAC Residential Funding, says the opportunity for more major players to enter through acquisition is now severely limited. “With so little available to buy, we can expect more high street lenders to set up from square one, because this market now looks very attractive to the big names. Intense competition means there is now very little fat on prime lending. Profits are close to zero. Sub-prime looks highly profitable by comparison, with rates of one, two or 3% above LIBOR, although you must set that against the risks involved.”

Mainstream lenders appreciate their strict lending criteria have forced them to reject desirable business, and are acting accordingly, Stimson says. “Customers are being turned away, whether for buy-to-let, self-certification or sub-prime. Lenders are pushing away customers from who they can actually make money. They have set up referral agreements with brokers or specialist lenders, but these haven&#39t always worked. Now they are trying to compete as much as they can in-house. They can take customers with CCJs and re-underwrite them on their own products, which allows them to offer all these products under a single roof.”

Stimson says customers carrying the label of non-standard or sub-prime don&#39t always present that substantial a risk. “They may be just two or three payments down on their credit card, they may not even have any CCJs on their credit record, but have still been treated as bad debt by some lenders. This really doesn&#39t make sense.”

Increased use of credit scoring by mainstream lenders has excluded anybody with a slightly different credit record or occasional bad payment from the mainstream. “They are not quite adverse clients but not really prime. I would call this grey lending, it is the market where lenders such as ourselves or BM Solutions are operating, and despite the conclusions of the Datamonitor report, I don&#39t necessarily think it&#39s shrinking overall,” he adds.

GMAC-RFC doesn&#39t segment its mortgage customers but will lend to the mainstream and non-standard population, pricing according to the individual&#39s problems. Its rates start at around 4.5% for those with light adverse and can rise to 10%. Like many non-standard lenders, it enjoyed a bumper 2002, with £1.6 billion worth of sub-prime lending.

The number of non-standard borrowers may have steadily contracted, but Stimson says it would be foolhardy to extrapolate that into a continuing decline. The last recession may be almost a decade away, but there is a new threat on the horizon and it&#39s made of plastic. Credit-hungry Brits are currently borrowing £1.09 for every £1 they have saved, according to independent financial adviser Promotion.

“The amount of credit card debt in the UK is high. People prefer to borrow rather than save, and this is putting many in danger of falling into sub-prime categories in future. Instead of declining, the non-standard population could just as easily hold steady or possibly expand, particularly if the economy slips into recession.”

Stimson is confident the market will go from strength to strength, which-ever way the economy turns. “Non-standard lenders are more established in brokers&#39 and packagers&#39 minds, and the more that happens, the more people will use us. Kensington Mortgages is fairly well established. Halifax, Skipton, Britannia and others are all strengthening the market.” Richard Hurst, head of communications at Future Mortgages, says the market is difficult to quantify as it goes by so many different names. Datamonitor defines a non-standard individual as “someone who is systematically refused credit from mainstream lenders (banks, building societies and large finance houses), whatever the size or nature of their application”. Its definition of non-standard includes people commonly classified as sub-prime, non-status, non-conforming or credit impaired.

“When people talk about the market shrinking, they often aren&#39t comparing apples with apples. Self-employed people with a perfect credit history have been called sub-prime borrowers, whereas they are probably better described as non-conforming.”

Hurst says the boundaries between prime and sub-prime lending are becoming blurred and critics predict they could disappear in as little as 12 months. “In the past, one month&#39s arrears or a CCJ from years ago would have excluded you, but now there is hardly any money in prime lending and lenders have to be flexible. The options for somebody with some kind of credit blip are tremendous compared to five years ago.”

Technology has been a massive catalyst, Hurst says. “In the past, people would go to the big five on the high street, but the explosion in financial websites means they are happy to go to, say, the Staffordshire Building Society if that offers the best rate. Blurring won&#39t only be caused by the big boys lowering their credit levels, but by sub-prime lenders raising their sights.

“Sub-prime lenders will broaden upwards, introducing products for a wider market, targeting people with relatively little adverse, until both meet in the middle. They used to be a big black line between prime and sub-prime lenders, but that will disappear.”

The major obstacle for sub-prime lenders looking to expand their business is coping with volume, says Hurst.

“Small and profitable sub-prime lenders won&#39t be able to get sufficient economies of scale to allow them to handle thousands of prime customers. The players that can broaden their expertise are backed by big names with global balance sheets such as GMAC-RFC, igroup and ourselves. We can centralise the operation and benefit from economies of scale, but smaller players have got nowhere to go.”

Hurst believes if the market continues to shrink, the smaller players may have no option but to stay put and enjoy the ride while it lasts. “It is a valid strategy to stay within this diminishing market and get all the cash you can, then move on in a few years. I expect the market will shed a few smaller players over the next couple of years.”

A shrinking non-standard lending market should be seen as a massive pat on the back for the sector. “A huge number of people have been in financial difficulties, but the growth of the sub-prime market has allowed them to get back on their financial feet.”

Hurst says one recent development could reverse recent trends by making it harder for credit-impaired clients to find a willing lender. In December, Royal Bank of Scotland was fined a massive £750,000 by the Financial Services Authority for the crime of failing to obtain sufficient &#39know your customer&#39 documentation or maintain adequate proofs of identity.

This was the first fine imposed under the FSA&#39s money laundering rules, launched in December 2001. “It was a major wake-up call for the industry. That is a huge sum of money to be fined. Some sub-prime lenders have been accepting borrowers with just three months&#39 proof of residency. Now people with a credit history or profile will find it very difficult, because we have a duty to know our customer.”

Hurst says mainstream lenders have been depriving themselves of one particularly attractive type of non-standard customer, the self-employed.

“Most self-employed people are running a business as well as their own money, and have better control of their finances than salaried people. However, because they don&#39t have a PAYE slip they don&#39t match typical high street underwriting requirements and unjustly struggle to get credit.”

The Datamonitor report highlights how the self-employed still struggle to get credit from mainstream providers. Levels of self-employment have fluctuated in recent years, falling from 3.2 million in 1998 to 3.1 million during the subsequent three years, then increasing to 3.2 million last spring.

The Datamonitor report noted that “despite the growth of financial services products aimed at the self-employed, most evidently selfcertification mortgages, self-employment remains a barrier hindering access to credit from mainstream providers. They commonly require three years&#39 employment history and the approval of records by a qualified accountant.” It also pointed out that Chancellor Gordon Brown has introduced tax concessions to make self-employment more attractive.

Bob Sturges, communications manager with igroup, says self-employed and contract workers are a strong growth market and lenders must respond. Last year, igroup did £2.6bn worth of lending, up from £1.5bn in 2001, of which about 45% was for self-employed or contract workers.

This market provides lenders with a dynamic area where volumes will continue to grow, says Sturges. “There is continued interest in contract or self-employment. Growing numbers enjoy income from a range of sources other than PAYE, including property rental or even investment income. Many find it difficult to prove income in the traditional way, either through a payslip or a fully-automated set of accounts.”

The industry has so far failed to respond. “The self-employed have an insatiable desire for home ownership and we should service that. Lenders still treat people as if they should have a job for life. They should assess the self-employed with manual underwriting rather than credit scoring, creating a lifestyle evaluation based on a range of credit and risk profile data.”

Sturges argues that Datamonitor&#39s figures on market size are conservative because it focuses on those with a poor credit record. “We prefer to describe the market as specialist rather than non-standard. When you include all specialist mortgage activities, including sub-prime, buy-to-let and self-certification, or even large loan properties or properties that are specialist in character, you could put the market as big as £30bn, and certainly not shrinking. I am confident the specialist sector in its broadest interpretation will continue to grow, it is on an upward curve.”

Steve Sandiford, head of product strategy at BM Solutions, says to maintain margins specialist lenders must make better use of the existing opportunities. “When customers come through the door we have to say &#39yes&#39 to more of them. Lenders have improved their credit risk management, putting them in a better position to take on new clients. The Halifax group has a huge number of customers coming through the door and isn&#39t alone in wanting to exploit that opportunity with better distribution and marketing.”

Technology is crucial in helping lenders improve their conversion rates. Lenders may have suffered processing and servicing problems, but they must overcome these. “If the number of customers isn&#39t growing, lenders must gear themselves up to convert a greater proportion of leads.”

Sandiford says this could mean specialist lenders moving down the risk scale. “Lenders could move into heavy adverse areas and hope to manage that business a little better. However, they should focus on the lighter adverse areas because that is where people are slipping through the net. We are now taking on people we would have rejected a few years ago, and have to make sure that trend continues.”

Peter Beaumont, sales and marketing director at Mortgages PLC, also sees the greatest opportunities in the lighter adverse market. “We aren&#39t seeing growth in the hard core of people with extensive credit problems but in the lighter adverse, where credit searches have unearthed a damaged payment profile or late payment of bills or credit cards, and mainstream lenders don&#39t want to know. We have exploited that and are now looking at extending our range even further up the credit spectrum. This opens us to borrowers outside that hardcore 7.8 million. We saw business rise 180% over the last year – that doesn&#39t happen in a shrinking market.”

A falling population of non-standard borrowers is actually a sign of industry success. “If people take one of our rates for, say, three years, they will have rebuilt their credit rating and can return to the mainstream. This is fantastic because it&#39s exactly what we set out to do,” Beaumont says.

Heavy credit card borrowing could threaten that success and the cycle could start all over again. “Borrowers only have to face difficulties with the minimum payment, and next time they consult for a loan or remortgage, possibly even to consolidate that debt, they will face problems. When the debt bubble bursts, non-conforming lenders will have a huge opportunity.”

That cycle could be triggered by a range of factors. “Nobody knows the impact of any future war with Iraq. We could go into recession for reasons we don&#39t know yet. There is nothing wrong with the housing market at present, but we are doing a damn good job of talking it down. Datamonitor certainly can&#39t predict the future and neither can I.”

If bad news strikes, Beaumont says new categories of borrowing could slip into the non-standard population. “This might include first-time buyers who have overstretched themselves, homeowners who have remortgaged to borrow more, or buy-to-let borrowers struggling with falling yields.”

Datamonitor has suggested that lenders who rushed into this market may have to turn to cross-selling to maintain profits. This can make sound commercial sense, generating income in helping retain customers, because the more products somebody has with a particular company, the less likely they are to switch elsewhere.

Beaumont says many lenders will find cross-selling opportunities limited. “We are a business-to-business lender and have to be careful about actively cross-selling, because that could easily enrage the broker we sell through. We do sell monthly accident, sickness and unemployment insurance, but always pay the broker an introductory fee.”

Mortgages PLC is working with a number of lenders to widen the range of products available and this could be a source of future growth. “Banks don&#39t like saying no because they are turning away business. We have schemes with a number of different lenders to offer our non-standard products that they can put to their clients.”

Mike Perry, head of sales and marketing at Amber Home Loans, which is owned by Skipton Building Society, isn&#39t concerned about the size of the sub-prime population because the lender aims to fill a niche rather than grab a large wedge of market share.

“We don&#39t open our products to everybody, but aim to be a specialist lender only selling through mortgage intermediaries. Market share is therefore less important than offering a good quality service to our panel, which includes direct access to our underwriters to discuss new clients.”

Ensuring business is good quality with strong margins is key. “We offer bespoke mortgages for light, medium or heavy adverse levels, so the product can be tailor-made for the client&#39s needs,” Perry says. “Some adverse business can be very attractive. A managing director earning £100,0000, wanting a £250,000 mortgage with a £100,000 deposit, but who has a CCJ for £5,000 that he refuses to pay because he is still in dispute, could prove a very good customer. We are looking for good quality heavily-adverse business that fits with our lending criteria.”

Mortgage Match director Ian MacPherson says intense competition in a shrinking sub-prime market could put the squeeze on smaller packagers.

“Some packagers are in bed with pure, specialist lenders whose products aren&#39t that keenly priced and these are the ones who could struggle. We deal with BM Solutions, which offers better value for money than most sub-prime lenders, often charging around 1% more than its standard mortgage range. This means we aren&#39t as exposed. Smaller packagers might have to think again and maybe take on board the more competitive lenders to survive.”

Mark Howell, marketing manager at business-to-business distributor Pink Home Loans, says BM Solutions has driven down margins in the market. “This could hit smaller sub-prime lenders who are currently enjoying healthier margins on their products, and also raises commission issues for intermediaries. Non-standard lending has traditionally involved more work for intermediaries, but BM Solutions&#39 competitive products have lower commission rates. Lenders&#39 credit scoring systems have become more straightforward, this could have a major impact on intermediaries in this market over the next 12 months.”

Pink Home Loans is offering its panel of 35 non-standard lenders to smaller building societies, where growing numbers are looking to service members who fall outside their narrow band of products. “In the past, these customers went elsewhere and were lost to the society. Now they can retain them and put the mortgage through a third party. I expect this side of the market to grow,” Howell says.

Remortgaging still offers great scope for market growth. Despite major growth last year, three out of every four homeowners has never remortgaged, according to recent figures from Charcol. “With interest rates low, remortgaging will continue, driving growth in the non-standard market just as in the mainstream market,” Howell says.

Neil Thomas, director of independent financial advisers Simpsons of Brighton, says that far from continuing to shrink, the sub-prime market could soon see a fresh wave of demand. “The sun has been shining on residential property for four or five years, but people have over-borrowed and I think we could see some rain soon. If the market slips back, those who have bought recently and have little equity in their homes could run into trouble.”

This is where the sub-prime market will prove its worth. “The economic slowdown has yet to bite on wages but companies are increasingly looking at costs and inflation is starting to creep up. We will see credit defaults and people struggling to find finance. It is essential to have a vibrant sub-prime market because there is a huge need, and the financially excluded need the human touch and understanding.”

David Hollingworth, a broker at London & Country Mortgages, says his preferred option of placing clients with mainstream lenders wherever possible is getting easier. Mainstream lenders have learned to listen, particularly where people have worked hard to overcome their problems.

“Bristol & West and Chelsea Building Society are bringing out products for people who have recovered from an impaired credit record and got themselves back on track. Chelsea offers a variable rate from 5.94%, depending on credit rating, only slightly more than its 5.69% standard variable rate.”

Hollingworth still has memories of new clients tied into rates of up to 20%, with hefty penalties for redemption. “Those days are hopefully gone and the market will only get more competitive, which is good news for the borrower. We still like to avoid sub-prime because it remains more expensive, with many lenders charging up to 10% for those with heavy adverse credit.”

Ray Boulger, senior technical manager at Charcol, says less experienced brokers often make the mistake of placing clients with a non-standard lender that with good broking could have gone to a mainstream lender. “Any fool can take a mortgage to a sub-prime lender that will accept clients with a fair degree of adverse, the skill is getting that client a fairly good deal. Some mainstream lenders may accept them, and for a much more competitive rate.”

Boulger says this frequently applies to self-certification business. “Northern Rock offers self-certification up to 80% of property value, for loans up to £800,000, while quite a few lenders will go up to 75%. If the only problem is proving a client&#39s income you don&#39t need to go to the sub-prime market. It may be easier to do so, but your client will end up paying over the odds.”

Lenders such as Abbey National are flexible. “If the client has kept their nose clean for at least a year and has a CCJ up to £3,000, it will consider their case, particularly if they have a deposit of, say, 10%. Brokers must understand how lenders&#39 credit scoring works.”

Brokers shouldn&#39t choose a deal on rate alone, Boulger says. “There is a major difference between good sub-prime deals and less attractive deals, particularly when it comes to redemption penalties. BM Solutions and GMAC offer two-year fixed rates with a two-year penalty, whereas most len-ders have a three-year penalty period. The average sub-prime mortgage redeems in less than three years, sometimes paying a substantial penalty. This means it is often worth clients taking out the two-year deal, even if rates aren&#39t as attractive, because they will be free to move without penalty.”

BM Solutions has shaken up the market by offering competitive rates and others have been forced to follow.

Datamonitor reports that penetration of mortgages within the non-standard population remains considerably lower than within the population as a whole. Just 20% of non-standard households own their property with a mortgage, compared to 43% of the general population. So where does this leave what Datamonitor calls the “unbanked sector”? This refers to those without a bank or building society, who cannot confirm income status or make direct debit payments and therefore face difficulties arranging any lending. The very absence of an account implies a lack of financial sophistication.

These people make up around 6% of the adult population and fall into two categories: those who are genuinely excluded because they have limited geographical access, poor credit history, possess insufficient forms of identification or simply don&#39t have enough money to open an account; and those who have chosen to opt out, perhaps because of a mistrust of financial services institutions, a preference for dealing exclusively in cash, a desire to avoid debt problems or pay charges, or for religious reasons.

“Despite recent government efforts to target the unbanked population and fight financial exclusion generally, the unbanked population will remain an important component of the UK&#39s socio-economic landscape,” Datamonitor&#39s Boorman says.

Stimson of GMAC says there is little even the hardiest sub-prime lender can do to tap into the banking underclass: “The mortgage is not the issue, the first step is to get the socially marginalised into the financial system. Without a bank account, you won&#39t be able to obtain credit before working your way back into the mainstream.”

Despite growing efforts to expand upwards and downwards, there remain some places non-standard lenders simply cannot go.

Extreme clients could spoil it for the rest

Kevin Paterson, managing director, Park Row Independent Mortgages. It seems that every advert I see on TV these days is either for personal injury claims or credit impaired finance. Whether it be personal loans or guaranteed finance for car purchase, the proliferation of this type of lending has been significant in recent months. Lenders are finally waking up to sub-prime lending as a large and lucrative market they can tap.

Many lenders in the sub-prime mortgage market were slow off the mark when Kensington first attacked the sector in 1995 bringing with them established American experience in non-conforming lending. Prior to this, sub-prime was mainly confined to the back pages of tabloids offering exorbitant interest rates in return for their no-questions-asked approach.

Today, sub-prime lending, or specialist lending as it is increasingly becoming known, forms part of the armoury of most prime lenders and more and more are entering the market. But at the real adverse end of the scale I can see a problem brewing for some lenders who are trying to gain a competitive edge by extending loan to values and accepting any type of adverse. If, as predicted, the growth in the housing market slows this year these lenders could have a real problem. In my experience, really bad adverse clients tend not to change their spots – the same deal just gets shunted from one lender to another like a cruel game of &#39pass the parcel&#39. The safety margins built in by these lenders in terms of a sufficient LTV cushion or pricing of the product to compensate are insufficient safeguards if these clients run true to form.

I can recall clients who have had representation at a repossession hearing by mortgage brokers who were in the process of remortgaging them with an adverse lender. And then there&#39s the client who had not paid her mortgage for seven months and was facing repossession from her current lender, at the same time remortgaging with an adverse lender and managing to fit in a short holiday in between. Far be it for me to moralise but these types of clients rarely change and my concern is that lenders are not differentiating these types of adverse cases. So the reputation this sector has fought hard to achieve could easily be destroyed. It reminds me of a line from a famous film: &#39Speed is just a question of money, how fast do you want to go?&#39 Amber brings the excluded in from the cold

Amber Homeloans has launched a full adverse, menu-driven mortgage which can be tailored to suit each individual&#39s needs.

The bespoke mortgage will help brokers provide an Amber mortgage for each of their clients regardless of their previous credit history. It carries a three-month LIBOR pay rate (currently 4.03%) plus additional loading for risk based on LTV with a 1% discount until April 30 2004. Loans are available up to 85% LTV for loans between £25,000 and £500,000.

Capital repayments up to 10% of the balance of the mortgage are allowed each year without charge within redemption charge period. The deal carries a 5% redemption charge for three years and a £395 completion fee.

Amber&#39s full product range is available via a select group of mortgage packagers and panels including Network Mortgages, SP Mortgages, Mortgage Intelligence, Exclusive Connections, Genesis, MPS, Pink Homeloans, DBS Members, Homeloan Partnership, Homebank, Reedsrains, Network Data, Mortgage Direct, IMA, Connells, Optima and APS Europe Mike Perry, head of sales and marketing at Amber Homeloans Limited, says: “The launch of the bespoke mortgage is an important move for Amber and a major boost for brokers. Our existing panels have all told us that demand for a product of this nature is very high. Now any clients who were previously unable to get a mortgage due to their credit history can have a loan tailored to suit their individual circumstances.”

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