Nowadays, consumer confidence is taken as an even more important barometer of the economic health of the UK than is any index of industrial output. That’s why it was rather depressing to read this morning that confidence is at its lowest level for more than a year, according to a monthly confidence index published by the Nationwide Building Society. This drop is, of course, in anticipation of the spending cuts to be revealed in the Comprehensive Spending Review next week.

Experts at the British Retail Consortium predicted that the figure would be “volatile” until after the impact of the cuts was known, which seems to me “a PhD in the bleedin’ obvious”. However when we actually look at the numbers, I wonder how meaningful is this “index” and the media coverage it’s had. The September index was reported by the BBC to have dropped by 9 to 53 in September. Thus a drop of 15%. In a month. By contrast, it rose 10% in August. Can both figures really be true? Of course I realise that recent announcements of planned cuts could have prompted a drop this large; however I have looked at the Nationwide website and it’s clear that this index fluctuates greatly almost every month. It was only 45 a year ago; moreover it was 100 only a couple of years before that, at a time when the credit crunch was already well underway. Surely a more meaningful measure of confidence is actual retail sales?

This is clearly a case for study by BBC Radio 4’s excellent programme “More or Less”, which looks more deeply at numbers in the news, especially when they might have been misrepresented (Can that really happen? Shock, horror!). Naturally, most of us know only what the media tells us about the impact of the cuts. For example, I thought I read at the start of the process that the spending reductions would be spread over 4 years or so; however, we never hear that fact nowadays. Whenever the media talk about, say, 25% cutbacks in departments that are not being ring-fenced, the stories give the clear impression that the cuts and the resulting job losses will be more or less immediate.

A related example: one of our allegedly serious papers carried an interview last week with a single mother who would be seriously affected by the recent decision to restrict total benefits payments to UK average income. The article clearly stated that Ms X would have to consider a move out of London, away from family and friends, “within the next couple of months”. However the benefit limit decision will not be effective till 2013; a fact that was not mentioned in the story. Why not? Could this omission be because bad news sells papers? Am I being too cynical?

Here’s my point: the tendency of many media outlets sometimes to oversimplify and usually to paint the worst possible picture of any new development adds further to the stress on people who are already in debt or who think they might be in the future. It’s important to put things in perspective and that’s something that’s hard to do after reading some of our doom-and-gloom media coverage. As that old French philosopher said (at least I think he was a French philosopher, but my information comes from the media), “my life is full of great disasters, most of which never happened”.

If you have concerns about your own debts, read my book “Back to the Black” about the necessity of putting your financial situation in perspective before deciding your response to any demands from your creditors; or any piece of bad news you read in the press.

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