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  • Lawrence Bailey

A tough start to the year

January is traditionally a tough time for families, both financially and emotionally. There’s no sign so far that 2018 version will be any different.

Latest figures suggests more people than ever paid for Christmas on credit, with a consequent mounting debt problem affecting millions.

This trend is suggested as one reason behind a drop in new car sales - although another factor is probably that anti-greenhouse gas measures have put the diesel market into reverse gear. Conversely, home-buying usually takes on a new impetus following the Christmas break. It’s interesting to see Swansea apparently get listed as one of the UK’s property hotspots with a reported 7.7% increase in house prices.

Consumers will see some relief as a EU directive clamping down on additional credit charges comes into effect this weekend. That said, one travel operator has decided to sidestep the new rules by only accepting bookings via an online portal and slapping on an arbitrary £25 charge. All perfectly legal too. Amazingly, a major operation that will no longer accept payment by credit card is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The hardest hit by this move will be the self-employed who all too often find themselves on the wrong end of seasonal cash flow shortages.

Rail fares are going up but that won’t be enough to deter Virgin trains tycoon Richard Branson walking away from what he describes as ‘unprofitable’ franchises thereby leaving taxpayers out millions of pocket. Again, perfectly legal, thanks to tissue-thin contracts.

Meanwhile, computer, smartphone and tablet users are wondering if their finances are at risk following news of design flaws in firmware that can be exploited by potential hackers. In the retail world, House of Fraser is reportedly seeking better rental deals from store landlords. The firm is considered ‘vulnerable’ by analysts as online versus high street competition reaches a tipping point.

It’s not all bad news though. Manufacturing firms report modest economic growth elsewhere in the world has sparked demand for products in overseas markets. Ironically, much of that stems from continuing stable expansion in what is fast becoming the world’s major economy - China.

And did you notice that I didn’t once mention Brexit?


Reshuffle or redecoration?

At the time of writing this, prime minister Theresa May is still doling out details of a fairly uninspiring cabinet reshuffle.

While it’s an exaggeration for opponents to suggest that her actions equate to ensuring the Titanic’s deck-chairs are colour coded, there is nothing to imply anything remotely positive is happening as a result of this repackaging exercise.

Indeed, if emerging accounts are to be believed, the PM played a diminished role in deciding who stayed and who didn't, thus putting her authority under increased pressure despite the hype.

May’s breathless promises delivered over the weekend to abandon fox-hunting and plant a new northern forest (in which killing the King’s deer will presumably remain a treasonable offence) - as if both measures were on a par with securing a decent Brexit deal - had a slightly unsettling quality that suggested more than a smidgen of denial.

When all said and done, interim reshuffles are the political equivalent of redecorating the living room. What I mean is that they provide a temporary sense of well-being but otherwise have little practical value and are seldom worth the effort.

Clearly the plan was to crank up a rusty Conservative campaigning machine while making sure May has someone on board who can count the Cabinet Office cutlery.

Then again, maybe I’m expecting too much.

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