22 Dec 2015, 1:52pm
debt economy personal finance
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  • Now is the winter of our future consumer selves

    The shortest day is one where attention turns to Winter, and the promise of an eventual Spring. I’m going to be contrarian and think about a nascent Winter – for the collective spendthrifts that seems to be the Great British Public, from hero to zero and beyond in six years:

    this ain't gonna end well

    this ain’t gonna end well

    I see the party out and about, particularly at this time of year. So does Barclaycard – apparently the lower oil price has done wonders for the restaurateurs of the country.

    apparently Barclaycard process half of credit card transactions in Britian, which I find hard to believe. Anyway, these are the changes in spending

    apparently Barclaycard process half of credit card transactions in Britian, which I find hard to believe. Anyway, these are the changes in spending

    The good thing is that the predicted rate of change in overspending is slowing. And of course everybody is feeling chipper. Bless their cotton socks, the opposition tried to make political capital out of this without doing what I am doing in this post and hollering out like Scrooge

    Britons – you are overspending way beyond your means. Cancel Christmas and Stop It Now

    After all Cameron got into no end of hot water when he said that a few years ago 😉 Learning from the flack he took, which is basically don’t you dare tell people to spend less, even if it is the very thing they need to do, what this came out like was

    Ms Malhotra added: “Of course families need access to credit and the ability to borrow to invest for the future.

    Families do not invest for the future. They live by YOLO.  Families overspend and firefight the mess as best they can later

    No. I’m sorry, but the general level of financial awareness in Britain is just not that high. Families in general have no understanding of the meaning of the word invest. The principles my parents outlined thirty years ago still hold. Don’t borrow to buy wasting assets. Only borrow if you will save more in total (housing – where you expect a relatively settled lifestyle) or earn more than the total cost (education, in some circumstances which are getting rarer). For all else pay cash, and if you haven’t got it you can’t afford it.

    There are very, very few good reasons to borrow money in Britain. Under some circumstances borrowing money to buy a house is one, although I am not so sure that now is one of those times. I borrowed too much money to buy a house. The damage to my personal finances is still visible after 30 years – the only reason I am in a better financial position than some of my peers is I managed to shut down some of the other ways British households misallocate capital by borrowing it.

    Let me tally a number of ways many families fail to invest –

    • in the immortal words of a good lady friend “they pick up financial commitments like pets and children without thinking through the financial consequences”
    • They borrow for university, an asset that is being rapidly devalued through oversupply and becoming an increasingly unaffordable luxury. Once upon a time (1990s to 2010) you could have made a case for investing in a degree. It’s tough  to make that case now.
    • They borrow to buy wasting assets like cars, for God’s sake. You can get a damned fine used car for £5k and a decent runner for less.
    • They borrow to buy shit they don’t need to impress people they don’t like and keep up with the Joneses
    • They overspend on Christmas because they lack the integrity to tell their children that times are harder now. The road back from that sort of inattention is much longer and harder than recognising straitened circumstances at the time and shutting elective spending down until you know where you are.

    There are other subtler ways that people malinvest, but borrowing to spend on wants rather than needs is never ‘investment’. The shortest day of the year seems a good time to recall that borrowing money is a great way to give your future self a hard time. There are going to be a good many consumers whose forthcoming financial Winter will hold no Spring.

    The problem is that very few people invest. And those people, which probably includes many regular readers, are people who are relatively wealthy compared to most Britons. You don’t usually get wealthy by investing, that is what Work is for if you spend less than you earn, but it is often the way you stay wealthy. There is a massive difference between investing and spending. Opportunities to invest are hard to find and come rarely, and usually involve some sort of uncertainty. Opportunities to spend are commonplace.

    Of course families need access to credit and the ability to borrow to invest for the future

    is a chimera. I’m of the opinion that Britain would be a much happier place if there were far less access to credit for British families – like the credit controls of the 1960s and 1970s. The excess of credit since then seems to have made the banks richer and the people poorer, because they are increasingly forced to overspend on housing precisely because of this credit. It is a classic tragedy of the commons – of course I want to borrow more mortgage to outcompete you. But like an ostensibly neutral country supplying arms to both sides, the banks have no specific loyalty to me, it’s when you can borrow more to fight back that this becomes a gun that fires on both ends – we both pay more for our houses and the banks get to lend more money out. What’s not to like? Well, the opportunity cost of what else we could have done with that money!

    Sooner or later we are going to have to nail this problem. Sometimes you shouldn’t be allowed to do what you want to do, and the litany of commonplace consumer cock-ups with credit is getting longer and longer. It’s no fun any more, and the promise of endless financial winter doesn’t sound so great either. We managed to shut down a lot of Money Shops. We managed to slow the number of Liar Loans on owner occupation. We are taking the battle to the tragedy of the commons otherwise known as BTL. There is hope. Perhaps we need to make it easier to repudiate consumer debt, then banks would be more circumspect about who they lend money to, since the old ways of having credit controls is considered dirigiste and fuddy-duddy in these laissez-faire times. What exactly is so terribly wrong about expecting people to have the money up front for their consumer wants?

    Since you, dear readers, are presumably not among these consumer spendthrifts, a happy Christmas to y’all!

     
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