Any other business

Is our card-only culture fuelling inflation?

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Is anything anywhere getting noticeably better – economically speaking – or at least less bad? Are commodities and manufactured goods beginning to move more freely, for example, to ease the demand pressures that are stoking inflation? It’s good news that the number of container ships anchored off Los Angeles-Long Beach waiting to unload has fallen from more than 100 in January to around 20 at the latest count, but I note also that dockers there are demanding a 10 per cent pay rise. Drewry’s World Container Index – the handiest indicator of global shipping costs – has fallen 32 per cent from its peak last autumn, but remains five times higher than in the autumn of 2019.

Likewise, prices of most fertilisers dipped last month but are still scorchingly higheras input costs for food producers than a year ago. On the manufacturing front, microchip prices have fallen almost 40 per cent since January, but only after quadrupling during the pandemic. And in the global auto industry, another 104,000 vehicles – 68,000 in Europe, 36,000 in the US – have just been cut from production plans because of chip shortages. The UK construction sector reports that materials are moving more freely since the HGV driver crisis receded, but prices are still rising sharply and there are 244,000 fewer workers than three years ago. As for wholesale petrol and diesel prices at the refinery gate, no relief in sight.

So there’s some flattening-out of key prices to be observed, helped by easier movement of vital goods. But the peak of this physical inflation crunch still lies ahead, as does the wage spike it’s beginning to provoke. I hate to bore you with statistics or depress you with doom warnings: so I’ll look at all these categories again in September, in the hope of happier news to report.

Do you take cash?

In the search for reasons why the UK may face worse inflation than other developed economies, I’ll take a lead from Sir Keir Starmer (not a phrase I use often) and shut up about Brexit: instead, let’s look at the impact of the decreasing use of cash. How closely do you scrutinise the price on the terminal in any card-only shop or café to check whether it has gone up since last week? In Japan, inflation remains very low and cash use remains high, the 1,000 Yen note (worth £6) setting a firm benchmark for the price of an office worker’s lunchbox.

In Sweden, by contrast, inflation at 7.3 per cent in May was below ours at 9.1 per cent but cash is almost extinct – so I may have proved nothing so far except that the Swedes are generally more sensible than we are. But some things are for sure: the switch to card-only payment encourages consumer debt, makes it harder to track household spending, disadvantages the unbanked poor, creates data trails we might prefer not to leave, exposes us to cybertheft and computer outages and certainly makes it easier for merchants to raise prices at will.

Hence I regard it as my continuing duty to ask ‘Do you take cash?’ at every possible occasion – and to help youngsters polish their arithmetic by offering odd cash amounts that complicate the change calculation. All these thoughts were prompted by a card-only admonition in a posh bar at Wimbledon, evidently in this respect no longer a bastion of tradition. ‘I only wish we did take cash,’ said the polite server. ‘These stupid machines break down all the time.’

Shamed accomplice

My bedside reading stack provokes thoughts about how to rank one business crime against another. I’m belatedly enjoying Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s 2018 exposé of the scandal of Theranos – the Silicon Valley start-up that hit a $9 billion valuation on the back of false claims for its blood-test technology, and whose founder Elizabeth Holmes now awaits sentencing for several counts of fraud. The fact that Theranos exploited health fears as well as the gullibility of investors perhaps makes Holmes a worse offender than Bulgarian-born Ruja Ignatova, who merely exploited the get-rich-quick urge of the crowds that backed her fake cryptocurrency OneCoin – a story well told in The Missing Cryptoqueen by Jamie Bartlett.

But top of the pile has to be Too Big To Jail, the veteran City journalist Chris Blackhurst’s account of how the Mexican arm of HSBC provided multibillion money laundering facilities for the murderous Sinaloa drug cartel led by Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. Bank bosses evidently had no idea what their Mexican branches were up to – perfectly illustrating the perils of bigness in banking that I’ve written about so often – and were slow to clean the stable when they did find out. But they cut a deal which got HSBC off the hook for a fine equivalent to just five weeks’ profit and left their own careers unstained. If El Chapo (now rotting in a US ‘supermax’ prison) is by far the nastiest villain in this rollcall, HSBC – self-proclaimed as a global exemplar of ethical finance – is the most shamed accomplice.

The Queen’s menu

Saturday lunch was a joyful feast with old college friends at La Table d’Alix in rural Oxfordshire, an outpost of Frenchness that I have no qualms in mentioning again – but this time with a cost-of-living warning. Even without caning the wine list we clocked up £83 per head on an à-la-carte-only offering. Why no midday set-price menu? Because, I gather, owners Antoine and Camille can only find sufficient staff for a four-day week and must maximise takings while they can. ‘We couldn’t hire another waiter,’ said Camille, serving us with four-month-old baby Clémence strapped to her chest, ‘So we made one.’

That won our sympathy – but in these hard times I’m sure you’ll have suggestions for sub-£30 set-menu lunching to send to As so often, Her Majesty shows us the way: her favourite restaurant, Bellamy’s in Bruton Place, has a two-course table d’hôte for £27.50: this week, gazpacho and grilled swordfish.

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