Friday, August 21, 2009

We're spending, but more carefully

We are spending more than at any time since the December cash splash, but spending more carefully.

The latest credit card statistics show we pulled out the plastic an mind-boggling 125 million times in June, roughly twice each week for each adult Australian.

We rung up $18.4 billion, a total only beaten by the $20 billion we poured onto cards during the December cash splash.

But we've done so more cannily. Whereas the total we owe on cards has been climbing, the total we owe attracting interest has been falling. In December $32.3 of what we owed attracted interest, around 72 per cent of the total. By June it had slipped to $31.7 billion, a long-term low of 70.6 per cent.

"It's a new era of consumer conservatism," says Commonwealth Securities economist Savant Sebastian...

"We'd rather use cash than run up debt."

Pure debt cards are doing even better with EFTPOS and debt card use up 17 per cent over the year. Cash advances are going out of fashion quickly. Once a popular use for cards but now attracting both high interest rates and fees, cash advances have slipped 9 per cent in the past year and 16 per cent over two years.

The Reserve Bank yesterday gave an indication of the scale of the stimulus payments, revealing that December and March were the biggest months for cash withdrawals from ATMs and bank branches in Australia's history.

So concerned was it that the financial system might not be able to handle the onslaught that it tested "all relevant systems for substantially increased overnight cheque presentation volumes" and ran all stimulus cheques presented to banks through its proprietary fraud detection machinery to identified whether or not they had been altered.

Concerned about ATMs running out of money it ensured that the payments were delivered in waves throughout the country "in order to avoid concentration of cash demand in any particular region".

It passed onto banks and ATM operators its advance knowledge of where payments would be going in order to enable them to place orders for extra cash, and put extra trucks and distribution agents on standby.

The most challenging day was Thursday December 11 when 1.6 million hit the accounts of Centrelink pension recipients in one hit.

The Bank discovered that on average we held onto the stimulus cheques for 9 days before presenting them, with almost all of us taking them to the bank within 5 weeks.

Published in today's SMH and Age