David M. Russell

Banks by any other name

In Commentary on September 10, 2009 at 11:23 am

Nobody likes banks. That has been a truism for decades: prior to that all but the richest among us were simply scared of them. But the Global Financial Crisis has sharpened our dislike to a razor-edge.

So, what does an astute capitalist do when a trend emerges? Tries to make a buck out of it, that’s right! Which is where a raft of large and continually growing Australian retailers come into the picture (and their exploitation of this situation is surely replicated – or originated – offshore).

We’re talking about massive retail chains like Harvey Norman and A Mart/Super A Mart. With no fanfare whatsoever, they have begun to play the banks at their own game – and their continual expansion demonstrates how smart their strategic ploy has been and how successful they have exploited the banks’ weakness.

Notice the vanguard marketing tactics of these retailers: 24 months’ interest free – no deposit, no repayments till 2011. There are scores of variations on this theme now but the common tactic remains the same. They are effectively offering consumers a loan. It is tricked-up as a commodity purchase – buy a lounge suite, a plasma TV, a kitchen – almost anything you want: just so long as you sign a binding contract to take a loan with them.

The reality is that the consumer items are really just baubles in much the same way as bankers of yesteryear offered home-buyers an all-day sucker as reward for signing on the dotted line. Some things just never change! In fact, you could argue that the mass-produced items offered by these retail chains are more or less give-aways – the cost of inducing us to enter into a debt agreement.

It is noteworthy that these retailers are now starting to specify minimum monthly repayments to secure their deals (a factor of the reduced availability of capital in the monetary system) but their hope is always that consumers will lose their focus and accidentally not pay-out the full balance by the due date thus becoming liable for all the accrued interest penalties. It’s a harsh world.

Of course, the retailers are as thick as thieves with credit houses like CitiBank who provide the finance packages. It’s a cosy partnership that is making both parties very content. It’s just the banks sitting on the sidelines who are gnashing their teeth at the loss of business. None of us will shed a tear for them but we should never forget that there are all kinds of sharks circling us and not all are called banks. Let the buyer beware.


Dedicated slackers!

In Commentary on September 10, 2009 at 11:21 am

Australians are frequently regarded as liking the good life just a little too much. Other people around the world seem to be convinced that our lifestyle advantages of sun, sand and surf lure us into a hedonistic mindset that puts work a very distant second to the noble pastime of enjoying ourselves to the fullest. Funny thing is, even us Aussies tend to agree with that assessment.

New evidence, however, suggests we may just have to see a different reflection in our mirror. The fact is that we are so dedicated to our jobs that we actually run away from taking annual leave. So great is our aversion to taking time off that we have accrued an extraordinary tally of 123 million days of time off.

What is worrying bosses is not that we won’t take holidays. That much they can handle. No, the problem is more prosaic: the accumulated liability of all that leave is a massive $33 billion. Now that kind of accrued debt can keep sleep away.

While bosses are starting to be concerned about this situation it is the tourist industry which is really beginning to develop grey hair as a consequence. All this dedication to staying at work is sending electric jolts through their hip pocket nerves. They don’t like it and they want us to change. So much so, they have prompted the production of TV ads to prick our consciences into having a holiday.

The response so far has been muted. It seems one in four of us is a committed leave-hoarder with five or more weeks of vacation time sitting unused in our entitlements.

An interesting aspect of this hoarding mania is that many of us really think work is important while just as many believe that if we actually walk out the door for a while, some of our ambitious colleagues will steal a march on us. Talk about paranoid! The Global Financial Crisis hasn’t helped, either, with many workers wanting to stockpile their entitlements just in case they get the sack.

The challenge we all face is to work out whether we are hedonists (taking all our leave as it becomes due); martyrs (the company would grind to a halt without me); scaredy-cats (the axe-blow of the sack could cripple my career at any time) or maladjusted misfits (can’t trust any of those bastards I work with). Whatever category we may belong to, the tourist industry and bosses just wish we’d take a few days off to think about it. As soon as possible, please! Our country needs us to slack off. Now that’s a turn up for the books, eh?

Memory dims for want of a bulb

In Commentary on September 9, 2009 at 3:52 pm

A shadow is falling across the globe as one of the brightest spots in our lives is extinguished forever. Okay, so that’s hopelessly corny but can you believe it? Incandescent light bulbs are about to go the way of the dinosaur. By the end of this year we won’t be able to buy them anymore as they are to be replaced by compact fluorescent lamps.

It’s all in the name of sustainability so there can be no argument against it: old-fashioned bulbs generate way more greenhouse gases than fluorescent lamps so they’re being switched-off by government fiat.

Interestingly, I can’t remember any political party in the past decade unveiling a policy platform that promised to dim our lives. And that is just what is happening. At first I thought my eyesight was failing because every time I replaced a bulb, my world shrank a little. Sure, I felt good that I was saving the world but a nagging inner voice kept asking why that world was getting smaller even though I was being as green as a frog.

The fact is that these new lamps are not as bright as the old ones. Their advocates – disturbingly young people with eyesight so good they can see in the bloody dark – don’t notice the difference. Lucky sods. They are so full of joy for the world as they preach the virtues of these new forces of darkness that they ignore the downsides – and there are quite a few of them.

For a start, the new fluoro lamps contain cancer-causing mercury which is also labelled a neurotoxin (don’t let any Russian spies get to you with this stuff). Nor is there yet any safe way to dispose of them. Our beloved federal governments (both persuasions are guilty) have put hands over their eyes so they can see no evil. Their sustainability approach is to ask us to store dead lamps at home or work until someone figures out something we can safely do with them.

And these people expect us to believe they deserve to run the nation! As the old saying goes: they couldn’t organise a root in a brothel.

But those dreadful entrepreneurs that the former government nurtured during its decade in office have recognised a money-making lurk when they see it and will recycle these mercury-ridden lamps safely for a hefty fee. They don’t say how they do that safely so keep a watch in your local creek for fish glowing in the dark. Just kidding.

It’s a wonderful state of affairs, isn’t it? We have to pay way more for these new lamps. They pollute the world with a deadly neurotoxin/carcinogen. There is no safe disposal scheme. We have to pay an outrageous price to supposedly get rid of a few safely. They don’t light up our lives as well. And they look bloody ridiculous.

Thank heavens those relics called candles will not yet be sacrificed on the altar of sustainability. Sure, they may create greenhouse gases but I’m now convinced there are faults far worse than that. Hey, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be able to spot old folks staging light bulb parties just to celebrate a few bright moments in their dotage. Theirs will be the well-lit houses shining with an inner light.