Thursday, 22 July 2010

Consumer Protection in Financial Services: two sides of the same coin

On 2nd and 3rd July the European Coalition for Responsible Credit held its international stakeholder conference ‘Financial Services Providers and Consumer Protection - Two Worlds?’ at Hamburg. The symposium, gathered consumer organisations, financial service providers, policy makers, academics and politicians to discuss current issues in retail markets for financial services in Europe and elsewhere. Issues that were discussed include national reports on consumer credit and banking, a comparison of bankruptcy laws, bank reporting on responsible lending, financial literacy, and consumer information overload.

Whenever you as an academic researcher get the chance to attend this type of events straightforward you get the flavor of the progressive nature of consumer credit law in various European legal systems. Which basically have increasingly developed into a combination of private and public regulation, attributable to the fact, that, through mandatory law it combines economic (transparent, competitive market) and social concerns (such as social consequences of over-indebtedness) in a private law setting. Hence, a balancing act between stimulating financial services and safeguarding economic interests of consumers.

The panel on ‘information overload at the point of sale‘ conformed by Sarah Linch(European Commission), Prof. Geraint Howells(Uni. Manchester), Dr. Bernhard Dychhoff (VW Financial Services) explored quite interesting topics through their presentations. The lectures in this panel touched upon the provision of ‘adequate explanations’ related to credit. This duty encapsulated in article 5(6) European Consumer Credit Directive apparently aims at enhancing contractual fairness between contracting parties. At the same moment, the article may provide an opportunity to empower consumers in their contracting position. Since has been introduced as flexible element in the Directive it will provide a range of possible options for a Member States regarding implementation.

The panelists agreed with the need of consumer testing as regards of ‘Standard European Consumer Credit Information’ (Annex II of the Directive), which also regulates the form in which specific information must be conveyed to consumers in the pre-contractual stage. Such standardisation of information apparently aims at avoiding information overload and at maintaining or allowing the comparability of different offers. As a result the suggestion to focus on duties to disclose a summary or short-form contract in plain language, highlighting rather than hiding key terms seems less meddlesome than one might suspect.

Nevertheless, standardization may not necessarily help consumers directly nor level the playing field for them; for example, if they fail to use or understand the information provided. The ideal of transparency, though laudable, may lead to an increase in information, yet not necessarily facilitate accessibility and simplicity. At the bottom line, in striving for simplicity it must be borne in mind that borrowers are heterogeneous in their preferences and concerns.

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