Archive for December, 2009

Two Worlds, Bankers and Services

December 9, 2009

The impression of a yawning gulf between two worlds was hammered home today.

On the one side we have reckless gamblers, known as bankers, again raking in cash and handsomely rewarding themselves, on the other there is a threat of extremely severe cuts in local services.

Add that to the high levels of unemployment and the collapsing infrastructure of the nation and I can only repeat again that we are in serious danger of becoming the new serfs to the new feudal lords.

This morning’s Financial Times carries a long report (Do-it-yourself warning as state cuts back) of forecasts by the most senior Local Authority professionals. So serious is the matter that we have a joint report from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, and the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accounting.

 They expect a cut in local services by one third over the three years 2011, 12 and 13. With Alistair Darling forecasting government cuts of over an eighth one might wonder how George Osborne is going to ensure ‘we are all in this together’! If he becomes Chancellor…

 The idea of bankers paying their fair share – any share – of the ‘fine mess they’ve gotten us into’ recedes more every day. They complain that they would not be able to hold onto the best staff otherwise. To which the question must be ‘Best for what?’.

 “But there is undoubtedly going to be a need for individuals and families and communities to do more for themselves, along with the voluntary sector, rather than looking to the state as the provider of first resort,” comment our doughty professionals.

 Bankers, of course, faced no such restrictions to save their bonuses. And, to make that possible,  we are seeing the price we will have to pay for a very long time. Who says ‘the prices is worth it?’ Not those doing the paying.

 For me this raises a very important question. Who is all this for?

 We are dazzled with figures about how we must trade, we must find the cheapest labour, we must become efficient. But must we?

 It certainly makes company balance sheets look better. But who is that for? Not for you and me. Does it matter how cheaply goods are imported if we are out of work and unable to buy them? If just having our refuse collected costs an arm and a leg – or if it is not going to be collected at all?

 It raises many questions about how we organise our world; and many questions about what is important to us as people. Over the coming years those questions will be major discussion points.

 We are offered figures which show green shoots of hope. Today’s double whammy from national and local government leave me feeling distinctly in depression.

Joseph Harris – Debt Control Man
 Control Your Debt Crisis on Your Own Terms

George Soros’s Double Bubble

December 7, 2009

I hate George Soros for destroying the pound when another of our pairs of incompetents were in government – John Major and Norman Lamont. These terrible twins fought to try to buck the foreign exchange markets and in so doing gave George Soros five billion good British pounds!

But he is a very bright spark about how markets work – after all he makes a lot of money that way.

And I was fascinated to read in the FTWealth  ideas column that he has a view about bubbles as well. To him every bubble has two components.

The underlying trend in reality is one, and the other is a misconception relating to that trend. Boom and bust happen, he believes, when a trend and a misconception “positively re-inforce each other.”

Well, I’m, not going to try to explain that. You’re right, it’s because I am not quite sure myself what he is talking about. Essentially I think it is about the propensity we all have to see what we want, rather than what is there.

But what it did do is remind me of my discussions about truth. That truth itself is hard to find, or really define. And that we need certainty and so make truths of what makes us feel safe.

Well, anyway, that’s what I think. and I’m sure he is right.

Even if he does think of himself as a failed philosopher.

Joseph Harris – Debt Control Man

Control Your Debt Crisis on Your Own Terms

What is microfinance about?

December 6, 2009

Tim Harford writes in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine about Microfinance. He is the author of Dear Undercover Economist.

This is a neat little survey of the field, but left me distinctly disturbed. Now I understood the origins of Microfinance to be affordable small loans to help the underprivileged in poor countries to start the process of lifting themselves, and so contributing to their nation.

Affordable to me describes the whole package. Small sums that are enough to purchase stock for the initial trading of a small business, or loans to households to supply needs. The repayments would be small and might not start for a while. And the interest rate would be very low.

In the UK this is not a new idea and was operated by the Midlands Tallymen, who loaned the money to buy clothing and domestic cottons and linens from sometime in the C19. They would lend about £10 at a time and seek repayments of about ten shillings (half a pound) a week for 21 weeks.

That is dear enough at 5% on a twenty week loan, an APR of about 12.5%, certainly not cheap for the time in question. But it dwarfs and pales beside the figure quoted by Harford from a study of a South African project with charges equivalent to 200%.

No wonder he says that the value of the system is questionable.

In Kenya a savings accunt paid no interest and charged ‘hefty’ fees for withdrawal. That just seems an activity run by sharks.

That is a killer charge; it makes no sense to me if its purpose is to help the less fortunate. But in my research over the banks across the world, and the profit seekers who treat no one with sympathy it is all too familar.

In analysing the new Lending Code I find that Microfinance has become a word for the banking community. But they define a micro-enterprise as a business employing fewer than 10 people and with a turnover or asset total approaching £2million.

That certainly seems small, but Micro?

Actually it is a European Union definition! This suggests some confusion of understanding about the idea, though the effect that the smallest businesses should be treated with more care and responsibility than the bigger ones is a positive approach to the learning curves faced by those developing them.

I wouldn’t want to discourage any of this, but I am sorry to see so much opportunism creeping in.

Perhaps it needs a while longer to settle down into a sound international system.

Joseph Harris – Debt Control Man

Control Your Debt Crisis on Your Own Terms

Goodbye to the Cheque

December 1, 2009
Hardly a ripple seems to have crossed the media pond at the threat to bring an end to the cheque.

 Paper documents to enable the transfers of moneys have been around almost since the dawn of banking. Indeed there is evidence of written authorities in the first century BC.

 The praescriptiones was believed to be the Roman name in the first century BC. In the 3rd century AD Persian Empire (Sassanid) banks issued Sakks, while Muslims were known to be using sakks from the ninth century.

 The Knights Templar ran a nice little earner, using drafts, for pilgrims to the Holy Land for a couple of centuries via their chapter houses. And by the fifteenth century the use of paper by merchants to carry money between major cities was well established across Europe and areas of Asia and the Middle East. Fragments found show the 12th century cheques were remarkably similar to our own

 Now our unromantic money men wish to end the paper trail some two millennia, or more, after it started.

 The suitable dryly named Money Council, in a consultation paper with a similarly dead-from-the-neck-up title National Payments Plan – Consulting on change in UK payments talks of the changes that might be made in the future.

 Now I am pretty critical, but the Council is not blind to the whole picture: “…special account must be taken of the needs of minority and disadvantaged groups…” it declares, with suitable gravitas.

 It then spoils the declaration with the fait a compli smug comment “…so that they can share in the benefits of innovation. We are asking what can be done to ensure that all sectors of our society can benefit from the move to more efficient means of payment.”

 Well, as it happens, the cheque remains the only paper trail of payment for the ordinary person. Anyone who uses digital technology, on which all other systems are based – and we all use computers, is fully aware how easily mistakes can occur, and how big (though fortunately rare) a catastrophe is.

It also ties us more closely to the banks than ever before. We can have little confidence in them after their comments following the strange judgement form the law lords sitting in their nice new supreme court. Indeed that case was about the distinctly fishy behaviour of the banks; how nimble their fingers are in our pockets!

Read this consultation document. If, like me you prefer to use cheques often, or appreciate the difficulties for the elderly and the lonely and the isolated. please send a comment to these worthy ladies and gentlemen to help them in their deliberations.

And, in the gadarene rush to the card, think also of the person who has hit troubles that mean they are denied the use of those cards. Are they to become the excluded of the new society?

SAQ – SAve the cheQue – give the bankers the SAQ!

Joseph Harris – Debt Control Man