x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dust off your recession strategy, and keep exercising your credit

The View from Here Banks are now closely monitoring their client's credit activities. Running up your cards and quickly paying them off are a good sign. They will be more inclined to extend further credit if they can see you manage it.

As we seem headed for round two of the Great Financial Embarrassment, it might be a good time to look at survival strategies for getting through a recession.

Rule one: resist the urge to strangle anyone who tells you to get out of debt.

You might be one of the few who does not owe large amounts of money to anybody. Hooray for you. Most of us, though, live at the pleasure of HSBC or some other banking institution. We owe money and probably will until the man with the big scythe comes along.

The priority, therefore, is not so much getting out of debt, but managing it. A good credit score - and line of credit - is gold. Banks might be clutching their pennies as tightly as an old lady with a handful of coupons. But when they do lend it, it's cheap. The UAE, with its US-tied dirham, has among the lowest lending rates in the world right now.

Put another way - why borrow when banks are eager to give it to you because they're coining it due to high interest rates? Ordinarily, I would not advocate shopping as a good way to spend money you don't actually have. But if you need to run up your credit cards, now is the time to do it.

Economists make a basic assumption that when a recession ends, it does so with a bang. Years of pent-up demand mean consumers go wild, replacing cars, TVs and treating themselves to holidays. It's also a given that manufacturers and retailers use this time as well - to hike prices to make up for years of low growth.

During hard times, they can't pass cost increases to the consumer. They have to eat inflationary costs, just to keep their market share. Just look at the grocery war under way in the UK right now. Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda are racing to the bottom with prices to lure reluctant consumers, who in good times were piling up their trolleys. You can bet they won't be doing this when good times return, whatever their advertising agencies tell you.

This downturn won't last. Ergo, if you have cash, or a decent credit line, now is the time to use it. Of course, this does not mean maxing out your cards. Debt, like marriage, is tricky to manage. You don't want it to manage you.

I do get the point that paying interest on credit used to keep the lights burning is kind of a tax. And it can quickly get out of control. No doubt, quite a few people can testify to the consequences of mismanaging debt, more so on the back of high interest rates.

But unless someone comes along - another Karl Marx, for instance - we are going to live in a world that will be heavily dependent on your ability to run up your credit cards.

It's interesting to see that even some conservative economic observers put their hands in their heads when David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, said consumers should pay off their credit and store cards. "Clueless Cameron's Credit Card Gaffe" ran a headline in the Daily Mirror.

Clearly, Mr Cameron does not get it. As a species, we are genetically wired to go out and work, then spend like crazy to help us forget the miserable hours spent in the office. And the last thing the financial system needs is less consumer spending.

As for how much credit is good, my approach is to make sure that I can pay off my credit card within a couple of months. But I like to see it at a zero balance at least once a month, even if it's just for a few hours.

Properly managed, your credit line can also be a life-saving bridge should you lose your job. It can pay your expenses and, possibly, relocation costs.

But to keep it, you need to use it. Banks are now closely monitoring their client's credit activities. Running up your cards and quickly paying them off are a good sign. They will be more inclined to extend further credit if they can see you manage it.

So keep using your credit cards and overdraft. But do so carefully. Well-managed debt can make all the difference when you face a genuine financial crisis.

Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.

pf@thenational.ae