x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

On the Money: Empty bank accounts douse New Year optimism

Just one week into the New Year and poll after depressing poll is forecasting a tough year ahead. But just how much more households can tighten their belts remains to be seen.

Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National

If there's one thing that the Mr and Mrs Averages of the world have in common today, it would have to be a lack of confidence in their ability to save and manage their personal finances over the next 12 months.

Remarkable, really, when you think just how rare a general consensus can be, let alone one that is global.

Just one week into the New Year and poll after depressing poll is forecasting a tough year ahead for the masses, better known these days as the 99 percenters.

It's a grim outlook - and one that I'm sure everybody was hoping would not be the case as they stepped into 2012; normally a time of the year that the slate has been wiped clean and we are full of renewed optimism for what is to come. That excitement you feel when it's a new year and potentially a new you, where your fortunes will grow because of hard work and smart investment choices.

But. And there's always a but. The world is now a very different place from what it was 10 years ago, even as little as five years ago. The tide has turned and there's nowhere left to hide anymore.

Sure, there are some countries whose citizens are confident, but they are mainly contained to the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). You just had to look at the mad rush of the Boxing Day sales in London, where Chinese tourists were at the front of the pack, happy to spend thousands of pounds in a day as they picked up massive bargains because high-street retailers were desperate to end the year on a slightly high note thanks to an extremely dismal 2011 for consumer spending.

But look elsewhere and you'll find a similar theme. From the UK, to the US, Australia, Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, people are worried.

At the top of their concerns is whether or not the world will sink into another recession. Or is this the same one we were plunged into when the global economy nosedived on the back of the subprime mortgage crisis in the US back in 2008?

I have a feeling it is and liken it to a game of dominoes, which are taking their time to fall around the world as they seek the next crack in yet another failing economy. It's Europe's turn now. And who knows where they will fall next?

On a more personal level, people are worried about their finances - and have been for a long time now. How to get through the next year without becoming a victim of the global financial crisis? How to keep a certain standard of living despite the higher cost of living, the almost zero per cent interest rates the banks are paying on savings and deposits; how not to lose it all because of the volatility of global stock markets? How to protect - or claw back - already diminishing retirement schemes? More importantly, how much longer can people sustain the stress on their finances?

In December, a raft of polls was released about consumer and personal finance sentiments for the coming year. They are a sad insight into the minds of people everywhere and give you a sense of just how powerless everybody feels; that we are no longer in control of our futures and fortunes.

In the UK, Deloitte's Consumer Tracker report, released last month, says 7 per cent of households have seen someone lose their job in the last quarter of 2011, while 53 per cent feel pessimistic about their disposable income.

Inflation is also a concern: respondents say it has driven spending increases on food, transport and utilities.

"Consumers are making significant cutbacks in their discretionary spending as unemployment, inflation and depressed wage growth take a bite out of disposable income," Deloitte's Consumer Tracker says.

"One in five households have seen a reduction in income in the last quarter as a result of unemployment, loss of bonuses, reductions in overtime and increased part-time working."

Head across the Atlantic and in the US, it's not much better. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index dropped from minus 47.5 in the period to December 24, from minus 45 in the previous week.

"Declining home prices, stagnating wages and an unemployment rate at 8.6 per cent may be weighing on sentiment," Bloomberg reported on December 29. The index gauges "Americans' perceptions on three variables: the state of the economy, personal finances and whether it's a good time to buy needed goods or services".

"Two of the three components in the weekly comfort index worsened. The buying climate index declined to minus 52.5 from minus 46.9 and the gauge of personal finances fell to minus 4.9 from minus 2.5."

In the UAE, the quarterly Consumer Confidence Index survey by Bayt.com and YouGov, released on December 19, found that just 20 per cent of residents believed their current financial situation had improved from the previous year.

Thirty-eight per cent said their financial situation was the same as it was in the previous year, but 36 per cent said it was worse.

Surprisingly, sentiment is a little more upbeat for 2012 in the UAE. "Forty-three per cent of respondents in the UAE are optimistic that their financial status will improve in 2012," the report says.

However, "the outlook for the economy is not much better, as inflation has left 37 per cent of UAE respondents with a negative outlook for the cost of living in the future, and 30 per cent believe that the cost of real estate will be negatively impacted, too".

I don't know about you, but I think the next year will see further belt tightening in most households around the world. Just how further we can go remains to be seen. But the key to our financial survival is to keep calm - and carry on.