Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Finance lessons must be learned

Yet again, a week has begun with more grim news on the economic front.



And this time, it’s not about another far-off bank in the US having to be rescued, or complicated transactions on the world’s stock exchanges going wrong.

The latest grim news is much closer to home, in the shape of two new reports on the state of play in Northern Ireland’s economy.

An Ulster Bank survey has found that business activity here is declining at a faster rate than at any time for the past six years.

A quarter of firms reported having cut jobs in the past month, while orders have suffered their second sharpest fall since the surveys began in 2002.

The second report, courtesy of BT, indicated that almost half of small firms are facing both higher costs and lower returns.

All this illustrates, once again, that the economy here is facing some very tough times.

Retailers will be watching fearfully and hoping that all the pessimism does not have too destructive an impact on the forthcoming Christmas shopping period.

There has been much talk about what could, or should, be done at a local level to help firms and their employees weather the storm.

This is an important debate, but we should also be aware that many of the key factors are well beyond the control of policymakers in London, let alone Belfast.

Economic confidence, banking stability, investment levels, credit availability and oil prices are among the global factors at play.

There will, therefore, be a feeling of helplessness in many quarters as the international economic crisis plays itself out.

But we can at least raise our voices to demand that lessons be learned from the drama unfolding on our television news screens every day.

The “masters of the universe” in the financial world enjoyed great power and privileges for many years.

With the connivance of governments, they handed out easy credit and allowed people to believe they had truly “never had it so good”.

But they messed up big time and now the bill for the partying has arrived.

It is entirely reasonable to be angry, to condemn the culture of huge bonuses and demand new regulations for financial institutions.

However, any debate on lessons for the future should go beyond that.

It is time to start asking more fundamental questions about economic well-being.

Is it, for example, possible to address the problem of short-termism — of judging success in the business world too readily on this year’s share price, the latest profit margin or performance bonus?

There is also the uncomfortable question of personal responsibility.

A great many of us needed little encouragement to “spend, spend, spend”.

Maybe it’s time to get back to a culture of thrift and living within our means — both as individuals and as a society.

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