OFT to conduct study into PPI

The Office of Fair Trading is to carry out a market study to look in depth at the payment protection insurance sector.

The market study, which is the outcome of the OFT’s consideration of a super-complaint from Citizens Advice, will be launched early in 2006.

PPI is applied to a number of credit products, including mortgages, and loans, and protects a borrower’s ability to pay the loan in case of accident, sickness or unemployment. Around 6.5-7.5 million policies are taken out each year and it was estimated in 2003 that 5.4bn in premiums were generated.

The OFT has decided to carry out a market study because a number of factors, notably the size of the sector, the complexity of the product coupled with limited understanding on the part of the customer, and the way in which the product is sold as a secondary purchase to the credit product, point to a potentially high risk of consumer detriment.

The OFT has identified a number of issues which point to the sector not working well for consumers and which indicate the need for a more detailed examination. These include the difficulties consumers face in gaining information about alternative suppliers and the technical nature and lack of transparency of the information available to them. There are also high costs or other barriers to entry for stand-alone PPI providers as well as a wide degree of variation in pricing in the sector.

The OFT also says gross profit margins appear high and although there is a lack of information on profitability, an indication of high profitability is provided by claims ratios. PPI claims ratios are estimated to be 15% to 20%, which is low compared to other general insurance products.

John Fingleton, chief executive of the OFT, says: PPI is a complex product, often bought almost as an afterthought. Borrowers may shop around for credit, but the complex nature of PPI and a lack of choice mean that they are less likely to shop around for PPI. There is a high potential for consumer detriment – our study will look at whether consumers are getting a good deal or not.

The precise timing and scope of the market study will be decided in early 2006 after the Competition Commission has reported on store cards and associated PPI. However, the OFT will look in more depth at the issues highlighted above as well as other issues raised by CitA in the super-complaint. The findings and outcomes from the CC’s work, and also the Financial Services Authority’s thematic work on PPI, will play a key role in influencing the direction of the OFT’s work.

The market study gives the opportunity to look more carefully at these and assess the impact they might have on the sector. The FSA reported in November 2005 and the CC is due to report in January 2006. The FSA regulates PPI, although the OFT does license businesses offering credit or acting as credit brokers, and the study will also consider the scope for a more joined-up strategy for regulating PPI and consider whether guidance can raise standards and, if so, where that guidance should be targeted.

In considering the super-complaint the OFT consulted with lenders, insurers and their trade associations and drew on its knowledge of the PPI market from its work on store cards and credit regulation.