Friday, February 20, 2009

$8.7 billion? Let's pay down our cards

The mystery of what happened to the government's $8.7 billion in December stimulus payments is becoming clearer.

Australians spent at least $3 billion of them making extra payments on their credit cards.

Credit card repayments reached an all-time high in December, topping $21 billion - some $3 billion more than is typical.

At the same time Australians took their credit cards shopping more than ever before, pulling them out an extraordinary 145 million times during the month - 12 million more than in the previous December.

The Reserve Bank figures provide evidence for both sides in the stimulus payments debate...

Supporters can argue that the payments had us spending big in December, putting a record $20 billion on plastic. Opponents can argue that we used a big chunk of the payments to pay the plastic off.

Nomura Australia chief economist Stephen Roberts said it wasn't surprising that Australians used the handouts to pay down credit card balances.

"Clearly nobody has any incentive to pay 20 per cent interest. With rising unemployment, paying exorbitantly high real interest rates makes no sense," he said.

The $8.7 billion in December bonus payments will be followed from April by the $10.5 in payments approved by the Senate this month.

Available to Australians earning up to $100,000 a year and worth up $900 each, most will be made automatically through the Tax Office. Some Australians will be entitled to more than one payment.

New car sales continued to climb in January after surging as the bonus payments hit wallets in December. But sales of non-passenger vehicles such as utilities, vans, trucks and buses slid 7.5 per cent.

"This looks like businesses cutting investment plans, particularly in the resources sector, said Commonwealth Securities economist Savanth Sebastian.

Australia-wide, vehicle sales are down 17 per cent over the year.

Sales in Victoria are down a more modest 11 per cent, and jumped 2 per cent in January, twice the national average.