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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Why Our ISAs Don't 'Work'... Yet.

The Treasury consultation on expanding the ISA scheme provides a fresh opportunity to put our savings to work and boost economic growth at the same time.

What's wrong with ISAs?

The “Individual Savings Account” (ISA) rules encourage us to put £11,280 a year into bank cash deposits and a limited list of regulated bonds and shares by making the returns tax-free.

Last year the Treasury estimated that about 45% of UK adults have an ISA, with a total of £400bn split about equally between cash and stocks/shares.

But in 2010 Consumer Focus found that cash-ISAs were only earning an average of 0.41% interest (after initial ‘teaser’ rates expire). They also found that 60 per cent of savers never withdraw money from their account; and 30 per cent see their ISAs as an alternative to a pension. 

Yet the banks don't use this cheap £200bn very wisely. In fact, only £1 in every £10 of the credit they create is allocated to firms who contribute to economic growth (GDP) and 60% of new jobs. In other words, lending to businesses is just not our banks' core activity, even though we also guarantee their liabilities. They earn more by financing consumption and speculation in financial assets. They've even taken £9.5bn under the so-called "Funding for Lending" scheme, and lent even less than before...

So we need the ISA scheme to encourage people to put their ISA money - and the country - back to work.

That means adding alternative asset classes that provide a decent return by financing the real economy, such as those generated on peer-to-peer lending and crowd-investment platforms.

Why hasn't this been done already?

The Treasury has previously resisted calls to do this on two occasions over the past few years. Their defence has been that ISAs are popular, simple to understand, relatively low risk and peer-to-peer platforms are not regulated (see here at para 14 and here at page 13).

But on neither occasion did the Treasury acknowledge the risks posed by the huge concentration of ISA cash in low yield deposits. Or the potential benefits of enabling savers to make some of those funds available to consumers and small businesses at lower cost and far higher returns - especially given that peer-to-peer default rates have proved to be very low.

The regulatory concern also appears to have been misplaced. Banks have clearly demonstrated that regulation affords no guarantee that consumers will be treated fairly. And peer-to-peer platforms, which are already partly regulated by the Office of Fair Trading, have been requesting broader regulation for several years. As a result, the Treasury has begun consulting on plans for more comprehensive regulation by the new Financial Conduct Authority from 2014.

All of that means the latest consultation on adding new assets to the ISA scheme is a golden opportunity to convince the Treasury to let us put our savings to work. 

Let's not miss it.

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