Monday, 26 October 2009

When Savings Got A Bad Name

When I was young, my parents and grandparents drummed it into my head that I should always save some money. I followed their advice when I could, starting my first bank account as early as possible and setting money aside.

Their advice certainly helped me buy my first home soon after I started work as I had plenty for the deposit. Bizarrely, I followed the advice of a rugby playing mate and went for a 100% mortgage and a whopping life insurance policy on an interest-only mortgage despite being single - his advice was to blow my savings on material things that had no long term value. Later, after meeting and marrying an Independent Financial Adviser (IFA), I got things back in check. But it was only when she opened my eyes to what I would need in retirement without the buffer of one of those super company or public service pensions that I started to really save.

Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a huge focus on getting credit in Britain. Banks and credit card companies have fallen over backwards to literally throw cash at us, not just to buy homes but to fund a fantastic lifestyle of flashy cars, superb holidays, up to date whizz gadgets and big TVs and much more. We have never had it so good as we used our own financial instruments to supplement our dwindling (on average) household incomes. In the meantime, our level of real savings has been negative. It was almost crazy to save, in fact, so cheap was the money thrown at us.

Pensions probably fared worst but savings generally have been negative in comparison to our monthly income. Beyond my pension, my wife and I save with ISAs regularly and this year we cashed some of those in at a lowish point and then bought back in using a scheme I had no idea existed called OICs. By doing this we have fared very well and the OIC alone has increased nearly 40% so we have not lost anything during the crisis and our savings are still tax free.

It struck me though, that savings seem to be the last thing on everyone's mind. Although the level of debt on credit cards has actually come down by the odd percent for the first time in ages, outside mortgages, Britons have over £1 trillion of unsecured loans. In trying to kick start the economy, one of the first things that was focused on was rekindling the 'Asset Backed Security Market', or housing markets to us mere mortals. While it made sense to get money into people's pockets in the short term by leveraging their assets, it was clearly exactly the same plan that had got the nation into a financial mess. So long term, there has to be a plan to get Britain saving more.

The problem is that it is not as easy as it sounds - we all know the score. Just when I think I'm on top of things, the washing machine breaks down or the carpet gets stained, the floor needs repairing, the lounge suite is suddenly wearing. With all the juicy sales on all year round these days, there is a temptation to think we are getting a bargain all the time and if we don't spend we will miss out. Saving in a disciplined manner is a hard task in our current environment of materialism fuelled by cheap credit. At least when interest rates were high we could see our savings grow and we borrowed less. Now, my Halifax building society account offers zero interest on our balance and we have had to go elsewhere to get something for our small monthly savings - it's crazy.

The whole market seems geared against savings. There is little focus nationally on pensions and saving for retirement and my wife's IFA business has changed dramatically over the years with structuring and restructuring credit as being her main business versus investment and retirement planning. She firmly puts this down to the attitude of Government, banks and people - it cannot be any one of those alone, it has the right combination and time. At this time, saving for the future is not a priority generally and the whole market is geared toward lending more.

In her opinion, as it is mine, the whole credit crunch was an accident waiting to happen.

Warren Buffett calls it 'capitalism overshooting periodically'. At the height of the crash he invested $5bn into Goldman Sachs and is now sitting pretty. My meagre funds went into the OIC. I am no Buffett but thanks to equally sage advice I have ridden out the storm well. Like Buffett, my pension is down around 25% still, as are his overall assets, but in reality my whole financial situation is as good as it could be in the face of what we have experienced and my pension is clearly for the long term. I am now focused on saving as much as I can. We reduced overall credit card debt to zero by releasing our Halifax savings to make sure we paid no interest while I have been putting as much as I can into my pension.

But how many others have done the same? In fact, the whole panic that has gripped us has seen the focus shift toward getting credit back to previous levels. Britain will soon get back to borrowing more and saving less. Surely, at some point that vicious upward spiral has to end and let's hope it is not as spectacular as last time.

My point here is not a swipe at the Government who have their share to blame. It is not even at the banks who fuel their cash by lending more in their bizarre world of finance. It really is a swipe at us, the public. It really is time to save and invest as the future could get nasty if we don't. Pensions should be brought to front and centre for every working individual and, personally, I don't think retirement planning should be voluntary. I think there should be massive tax incentives to save, instead we get tax on pension dividends, I think insurance premiums should have no tax attached, I think there should be no tax on savings generally.

Realistically, the Government should plan long term - the more we save, the less we will burden the state in our old age. It just makes sense.

Current finances in the country are a mess and it will take a bold Government that thinks long term in this way. However, it really is not rocket science. The more we all save today, the less vulnerable we are to downturns, the less of a burden we will be on the State and the less the system will incentivise us to borrow as banks will see the profit in investments over debt in the end - hopefully.

I have a feeling that pigs may fly first, but I live in hope.

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