Is work child’s play?

The recession, such as it is (technically it isn’t), is hitting children in all sorts of ways. I’ve just learned that pocket money has taken a hit: down from £6.24 per week in 2009 to £5.89pw this year.

Pocket money is like a welfare payment for teenagers. Obviously plenty of them are ‘on the double’ too, earning a few pennies to supplement their welfare income. But apparently the number of school children in part time employment has fallen dramatically. The BBC reports that the number of 13-15 year olds ‘licensed’ to work has fallen 40% since 2004. And the number of 16-17 year olds working part-time (alongside school) has fallen by half since 2005.

It’s unknown how many of these children have tried to find work. Is it the case that they are being overlooked, or are they simply choosing economic inactivity? Either way, it must have quite an impact on their standard of living.

I see consequences ahead. There is obviously an ongoing debate about the benefits and costs of children working. I favour it for older children. It certainly helped me appreciate earned income and taught me a great deal about the world of work. I worked in summer jobs, after-school jobs and weekend jobs in a range of sectors: retail, administration, delivery, oil, military, sales and construction.

I fear many more children will reach the age of work with much to learn about its value. But perhaps they will also learn to spend less on junk food and on consumption more generally. Looking ahead, that can only be A Good Thing for our profligate society. Meanwhile, many adults will be in need of work to support their families. Our economy should seek to meet this need first.

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Debt: good, bad or ugly?

Prior to this crisis, the world economy had seen massive growth in recent years. We all know there was a hiccup in 2001. But did you know that recession started in March 2001, not after 9/11? The dotcom bubble had burst, but then came the al Qaeda attacks and the War on Terror (no longer called this). An unholy perfect storm setting humanity against herself and the global economy in freefall.

Well not quite. Or, at least, not yet. While the global economy was rocked and broached in this perfect storm, she was not capsized. Central banks lowered interest rates and freed up companies and individuals to borrow heavily; encouraging them to squander money they didn’t own.

As house prices spiralled further and further out of reach, NINJA mortgages became the order of the day allowing the poorest in society to buy overpriced homes by leveraging not their assets, but their aspirations. The credit crunch was entirely predictable. I don’t claim to have been one of the prophets, but I do remember wondering about three phenomena in particular:

  • Self-certified mortgages. Why would an honest borrower need such a thing?
  • Mortgages based on 5 x salary, or even 6. My mortgage (4 x my salary) was already a stretch; what if interest rates soared?
  • 125% mortgages. In an era when average house prices had risen faster than average income for many years, surely a correction was inevitable.  But even price stability would leave these borrowers in negative equity.

There is a link between these factors and the credit crunch (and the ensuing recession), although it’s a bit more complicated. For me, as a buyer in 2002 and a home owner since then, spotting those factors was fairly straightforward. Buyers and owners have a natural interest in mortgages and house values/prices. My failure to spot the link early was based on an obvious old adage: if something looks too good to be true, it usually is. In this case, the factors above suggested the banks were unwise and doom was to be expected. I assumed the banks knew what they were doing, but that made an ass out of both of us.

This was debt at its worst, and a fairly extreme example. A tool for profit or investment (good), abused by greedy executives wanting superannuated profits at excessive risk to their companies (bad). The result of this for banks, shareholders, peak buyers, jobless borrowers, threatened workers, taxpayers, and this generation’s grandchildren (who will service our burdgeoning national debt) is just plain ugly.

All mine!

It's all mine!

One day we will emerge from this recession (I hope). That day may be some way off. In the meantime, it’s time to think about how we should conduct our economics in future. This question is nothing new and the G20 leaders have made some attempt to address it.

My interest (ignore the pun) is in the role of debt. In my opinion, mortgage debt, like beer and curry, taken in moderation is not a bad thing. Nor, perhaps, is well-priced debt to finance a sensible new car (as opposed to the Aston Martin you can’t afford).

But what about other extra-mortgage debt (spent on holidays, sofas or plasma TVs, for example)? There is a mainstream school of economic thought which suggests this kind of debt is good for the economy, even if it might not be ideal for the families and individuals so burdened. The thinking goes that consumer spending encourages growth and that consumer debt enables more spending. Therefore, consumer debt encourages growth. Since growth is good, consumer debt is also good.

I’m not convinced, and I’m not the only one.  I don’t doubt that debt-fuelled consumerism will influence growth, but I believe its effect must be time-limited. Of course a borrower has more to spend, but only for as long as his loan lasts. And as soon as his repayments begin, he must pay interest in addition to the capital. The opportunity cost of money spent on interest is the other consumer goods he could have spent his money on.

The rich rule over the poor; the borrower is servant to the lender.
(Proverbs 22:7)

If ‘Bob’ decides to buy a new 3-piece suite every eight years or so during his working life, that may amount to five refurnishings. Let’s say each suite cost him around £2,000 (A DFS bargain no doubt, but ignoring inflation) and was financed by a five year repayment loan. The interest rate is (a typical) 9.9%. By my reckoning, Bob’s repayments work out at £42.40 per month, which might seem reasonable. But across the term he pays £544 in interest. That’s a lot of money to throw away.

If, instead of financing his second suite with a loan, Bob had started saving £42.40pm after his first loan was paid off, he would be in a position to buy his second suite four years later (ignoring savings interest). That, of course, requires discipline and means delaying his gratification by a single year. He could afford his second suite after nine years (five to pay off the first loan and four to save up for the second). Instead of paying £2,720 in interest for five suites, he will pay just £544 in interest for the first suite. He saves £2,176. Plenty enough to cover the cost of one suite and a night out at Gordon Ramsey’s.

That’s why borrowing is bad for Bob. But is Bob’s borrowing good for the economy? I don’t think so. He can still buy just as many suites if he saves for them. In fact he can buy another one with the money he saves in interest. So by saving first, his consumer spending could be even higher than borrowing would allow him. The idea that consumer borrowing should boost spending (in anything but the short term), would seem to me a fiction.

Bad for the economy?

Bad for the economy?

There is another macro-economic reason I would discourage widespread consumer borrowing. I imagine the price of borrowing, like the price of anything else, to be governed by supply and demand. If there are more borrowers (demand), the price (interest rate) rises. The Bank of England sets the base rate, but this adjustment is simply intended to manage demand by the same mechanism.

So if the economy is saturated with borrowers frittering away money they haven’t earned, demand for money is high and therefore the price is too. As a bank, why should I lend £10,000 to a small business for new machinery for 7%, when there are consumers queuing up in my branch to borrow at 10, 12 or 15% for new suites, bathrooms, holidays or yachts? Of course, there may still be sound reasons to lend to the business, but my core point stands. A culture of borrowing will have an impact on the cost of borrowing.

Every £2,000 loaned to Bob for his suite is money that cannot be loaned to a business for investment. Every business, or potential home-owner, wishing to borrow to invest is competing against other borrowers. In a culture of consumer borrowing, this competition forces up the cost of borrowing. Good for banks, yes. But bad for business, bad for home-owners, bad for the economy and, as we’ve seen, bad for Bob.

In general? Just a bit ugly too.