Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We are watching our pennies, at last

Not so long ago people used to scandalise over the rate at which we were racking up credit card debt. Not any more. These days a new frugality is gripping us and credit card and other personal debt is growing at a snail's pace.

Starting in the mid-1990s, our return to low inflation caused interest rates to fall sharply and oscillate around a much lower level - remember when the mortgage rate was up at 17 per cent? - and this coincided with the banks becoming much keener to lend to ordinary mortals.

They pushed their credit cards, offering reward schemes as a new incentive, and inventing home loans that allowed you to redraw without fuss money you had paid off the principal. Whereas for decades people had tried to pay off their mortgage as quickly as possible, now they were seizing the opportunity to add to it.

The great bulk of the borrowing was for housing - including investment housing - but we also borrowed enthusiastically for cars and other durables, as well as hitting the credit card. Over the year to June 2007, outstanding credit card debt grew by more than 11 per cent. Add in personal loans and total personal debt (excluding housing debt) grew by 19 per cent.

Over the year to this January, however, total personal debt grew by less than 2 per cent. And over the year to February, the average credit card debt rose by less than 1 per cent - way below the rate of inflation - and the number of new cash advances fell by almost 2 per cent.

So what has changed? Probably a couple of things. The first is that we've adjusted to life in a world of easily obtained credit. We've borrowed hugely in the competition to obtain a better home, pushing the price of housing to unknown heights. Housing has now become much less affordable and it has occurred to us that house prices can mark time or even fall as well as rise inexorably.

After an uncharacteristic period of allowing the proportion of our collective equity in our homes to decline, we've returned to our accustomed position of increasing our equity by keeping ahead of our repayment schedule wherever possible.

Similarly, we seem to have gained a little more self-control when it comes to wielding our credit cards.

A second factor may be the lingering effect of the global financial crisis. Many Australian households may well have realised they were carrying far too much debt, which would leave them vulnerable (or, if you prefer, vonnerable) should they ever lose their jobs. (This is certainly what's happening with a vengeance in the United States and Britain.) If so, many people would be trying to avoid new commitments and repay old ones.

Another suggestion is that it's particularly the baby boomers who have changed their behaviour. In 2008 they witnessed the sharemarket crash slash the value of retirement savings - with share prices still not fully recovered - and now they've realised they need to knuckle down and start saving while there is still time.

Whatever the reasons, the figures say that whereas in the early noughties households had "negative saving" - their consumption spending exceeded their incomes - now they are saving almost 10 per cent of their disposable incomes. That's the highest our rate of saving has been since the mid-1980s.

Saving and borrowing are closely linked, of course - roughly, opposite sides of the same coin. So it shouldn't surprise that much of the money we're saving is being used to reduce our debts. (Nor should it surprise that, while many people are reducing their credit card balance, others are adding to it, so that total debt is still rising fractionally.)

We save by limiting our consumption relative to our income, but much of our spending - on rent or mortgage interest, council rates and electricity, for instance - isn't particularly discretionary. Where we have most discretion is in our spending at discount and department stores and it's these stores (plus newspapers dependent on retail advertising) that are feeling the pinch of our new frugality.

What goes with department stores? Credit cards. Why do so many people have trouble with credit cards? Professor Joshua Gans, of the Melbourne Business School, says many poor consumer decisions have two dimensions: sophisticated versus naive, and disciplined versus undisciplined.Sophisticated consumers are adequately informed about the products they are purchasing and about the mental biases which, if unchecked, may influence their decisions. Disciplined consumers are able to overcome their own biases, even if they aren't always well informed.

Ian McAuley, of the University of Canberra, has applied this matrix to credit cards. A sophisticated and disciplined consumer uses a credit card in the interest-free period and pays it off before the monthly deadline. Sophisticated but undisciplined consumers use the credit card, intending to pay it off, but when the time to do so arrives they suffer the bias of short-sightedness and go into high-interest debt.

Naive and undisciplined consumers use the credit card, perhaps to the limit, without even considering the opportunity to pay it off in the interest-free period.

Naive but disciplined consumers may refuse to use a credit card at all.

I doubt we've become much more sophisticated, but we do seem to have become more disciplined. Certainly, the figures say more of us - about 65 per cent - are paying off our accounts in full each month.