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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