Thursday, 28 November 2013

Do TV Advertising Rules Limit Economic Growth?

There has been plenty of research into the alleged effect of TV sex and violence on human behaviour, but how does TV adversely impact our economic behaviour? 

This issue was recently highlighted by the FCA's proposed new rules on crowdfunding. Left in isolation, the current restrictions on financial promotions suggest the State would prefer us to play bingo or buy lottery tickets than invest the same small amounts in funding the growth of each other's businesses. 

The FCA is right to point out the risks of investing in start-ups, but it should compare those risks to the risks consumers face when putting their money into other products that are more freely advertised.

We rely on small businesses for over half of all new jobs and a third of private sector turnover. Yet, those small businesses struggle for funding while over half of the UK's adults engage in regulated gambling that is designed to cost consumers far more than they 'win'.

It may be true that over half of business start-ups fail within 3 years, but they still employ at least one person in the meantime. And maybe more of those businesses would survive if we lent them some of our bingo money, or bought their shares with at least some of the money we chuck away on the ponies. Better that the money goes in wages, and the goods and services that small businesses typically buy, rather than simply to line the pockets of the bookies - and you have the chance of getting a decent return on small business loans, or if you happen to invest in the businesses that succeed in the longer term. 

No doubt someone will raise the moral panic about 'good causes' being starved of lottery money if we don't allow the promotion of that form of gambling. But I'm not talking about any ban on advertising lottery or bingo etc., just a relaxation of rules on the promotion of productive financial instruments (though it would be more efficient to simply donate a third of your lottery money directly to good causes on a crowdfunding platform than to wait for it to filter through the books of a lottery operator).

Ads for apparently 'safe' bank savings products are not helpful here, since savings rates are low and banks are not focused on lending to small businesses. We have over £200bn sitting passively in low interest bank deposits, yet banks' savings rates are below the rate of inflation, and banks only lend £1 in very £10 to SMEs. The Financial Services Compensation Scheme might protect your deposit if the bank goes under, but that's another cost that consumers end up paying for, and it won't protect the value of those deposits against inflation. Stocks and shares ISAs and pensions are similarly 'passive' investments in financial assets, rather than productive ones.

The highly restrictive approach to financial promotions has neither prevented financial scandals nor created a sound financial system - two of many reasons why people have resorted to lending directly to each other, or investing directly in each others' projects and businesses. So why not allow these new alternatives to be promoted more openly - at least to the same extent as riskier, non-productive activities like playing bingo or buying lottery tickets?

We need to move away from rules that dictate what we can do with our money, to rules that enable a fully informed choice from amongst all the options. 

At any rate, the State should certainly not create a situation where the money-related messages which the average TV viewer receives do not include investing directly in the productive economy.

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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Six Years On And Pragmatism Has A New Frontier

I see this blog has reached the ripe old age of six, so I felt compelled to squeeze in at least one post to celebrate.  

It's fitting that the reason for my absence has been the need to get to grips with the FCA's proposals to regulate P2P lending and investment-based crowdfunding - not to mention the revelations concerning the Chairman of the Co-op Bank. After all, this blog set out to chart the rise of facilitators who help us wrest personal control of our day-to-day lives from the one-size-fits-all experience imposed on us by our institutions. Rumbling the 'Crystal Methodist' marks the continuing plunge of faith in those same institutions, while the decision to finally let the 'crowd' into the regulated financial markets shows that even Parliament recognises you and I are better off dealing with each other directly than simply entrusting our life's savings to the banks and investment funds.

Of course, these are just a few examples of the punishment being doled out to our financial institutions. And they aren't the only ones under pressure from the trends sweeping society, as we struggle to figure out a more sustainable form of capitalism. All our institutions, from the BBC to the Police to the Church, unions, political parties, government departments and so on, face the choice of becoming facilitators or withering away. 

So is there anything 'new' to write about? 

Six years on we are still seeing the dawn of where these trends will take us. But to get a sense of the future, I've been following the rise of 'open data' - or open access to data in machine-readable form. This marks a new frontline between institutions and facilitators. Big Data vs You. Not only has it already created new facilitators, in the form of "personal data stores" or "personal information managers", but it may also redefine some of today's facilitators as the institutions of tomorrow... 

As a taste of things to come, last week a senior advertising executive insisted to me that "Big Data can accurately predict human behaviour." To be fair I made him repeat the assertion in case it had slipped out by accident. No one else at the table seemed to find that truly weird, and it wasn't until the end of the week, when I met up with some people working at the sharp end of data gathering, that I was able to fully enjoy the hilarity of that statement.

This is going to be fun.

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