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Friday, July 24, 2015

STOP belittling the 'SAHM'

Get the tea ready Mabel, the guests are here. Pic Credit: SimoneySunday
I do not have children (yet) but I already feel the strain of working full time, five days a week (and freelancing Saturdays), as well as various activities and voluntary work throughout the week. This makes it difficult to cook, clean and launder and make sure that something, somewhere in the home is not falling down or getting smothered in dust.

Although I cook every night, I do not always load the dishwasher or wash up afterwards. I might not clean my windows for months. Ironing is a pile I like to play Jenga with. If I struggle with just a husband and a cat, how much more must home-makers struggle to juggle child-raising, cleaning, tidying, budgeting and part-time or home working?

While I have heard comments from (non-married people, generally), saying 'they have it easy' and 'I'd like to lounge around all day watching Jeremy Kyle' in relation to SAHMs and SAHDs, I disagree. I think they do an amazing job.

They deserve a medal! Or actually £19,000 at the minimum - according to Liverpool Victoria (LV= as it is now known).

The life and pension provider recently carried out a survey which found that homemakers work an average of 56 hours a week, not including childcare duties.

Although one in three breadwinners feel stay-at-home role is ‘easy’ (HA! I wonder how many of my SAHM friends would think it's 'easy'??!), the average British household would have to find £364 a week (£19,000 a year, based on the minimum wage) to pay for extra help if the homemaker became ill or injured.

In fact, LV= discovered that the average housewife or househusband has a working week that is 17 hours longer than their at-work partner, if we exclude travel time.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the average number of hours worked by full-time employees a week was 39.2 in 2014 (Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, ONS, 2014). This is 16.8 hours a week less than LV's research, which was carried out by pollsters Opinium.

LV= found that full time homemakers spend an average of 56 hours a week covering essential household duties such as cooking and laundry.

What’s more, on average homemakers with children face an additional six hours a day providing childcare.

While cooking (1h 47m), cleaning (1h 45m) and laundry (1h 30m) are the most time-consuming chores, ‘keeping house’ also includes wider tasks such as shopping for essentials (1h 23m), mentoring children with homework (1h 8m), gardening (1h 4m), transporting family members (56m) and other tasks including house admin, including paying bills, managing finances and home improvements (1h 41m).

I'm quite dizzy just thinking about it. But LV= is not just highlighting the importance of SAHMs or SAHD to the overall working of the household.

It is highlighting the fact that most people do not have even £19,000 savings set aside in case of a financial emergency.

People do not even have proper life cover. Yes most people who work for a large or medium sized employer will have some form of life assurance - 3x or 4x salary is a general rule (don't tell the Merman) - but this is only in the event of death. What about unemployment or illness? The State will not support people any longer.

Therefore, it is worth checking out what else your employer offers. It may be that you can have an additional income or critical illness policy through the workplace, though this would be a benefit in kind. Some policies can allow the working partner to take out additional cover for their SAHM or SAHD.

Other life and protection providers could cover individuals against critical illness, injury and inability to work for just £10 a month.

The Seven Families Campaign has been drawing attention to the difference that it can make to everyday people to have proper life cover and critical illness and income protection in place, whether it is because the working partner gets made redundant, or the SAHP (Stay at home Parent) has become too ill to continue making the household function.

It is never too late to start thinking about getting a form of income protection or critical illness cover. Most advisers will be able to direct people in the right direction; at the very least, there are plenty of information sites available online, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Money Advice Service and Seven Families that can help you work out your protection needs.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We're all going on a ... lunchbreak holiday

Today was a little different for the small-yet-perfectly-formed @FANewsdesk team.

We news reporters, we few, we happy few, descended on our local council estate to sit under a cat-infested tree.

It wasn't sunny. It wasn't hot. It wasn't Costa del Sol.

But it was Southwark, it was outside, it was lunchtime and there were cats.

Thus began our very own #LunchBreakHoliday, courtesy of the lovely folk at TravelSupermarket. To see the campaign itself, click here.

Actually the story began a few weeks before, when I was asked if we could participate in a competition to hold a special picnic lunch with our team, send in our photos and a blog and see if we could win anything.

With our employer being strict about us not receiving incentives, we were able to participate, but would not have been able to accept a prize. That fact did not stop us from trying. After all, how often does one get to have a picnic in their lunchbreak, in the middle of the City of London, surrounded by high-rise buildings?

TravelSupermarket sent us a goody box with cute metal lunchboxes, a picnic blanket, a frisbee and some inflatable beach balls. Secreted within the little tins were two £5 cards for Pret a Manger. Fabulous!

The plans were laid and the sandwiches were made (or visa versa). The previous evening, I decided to go all Martha Stewart and I made peanut butter cookies. Thirty of them. Thirty between four people, three of whom, including myself, were supposed to be on a diet.

And here they are:

UtterPeanutNutterCookies. Pic: Simoney Sunday
For the recipe, head over to my other budget food blog - TheCrunchMunch.

I packed a large beach bag with yellow napkins, cut sandwiches, cans of cola, paper plates and plastic champagne glasses (because that's how we roll), and off we went up the road.

The local estate is known as 'The Cat Place' because of the many varieties of semi-domestic cat it boasts.

Here are some of the feature creatures you can see in this picnic palace, which is actually quite pleasant, with its benches and statues and little gardens all awash with coloured geraniums and begonias.

We call this one 'Sad Kitty' because he refuses our love and our tuna sandwiches

And these three cuddle-craving critters:
LtoR: Simba, Garfie and (foreground) Muffin
Yep it's a veritable safari down in Southwark.

Mmmm cookies. I mean Salad.
Although the sun was not shining, and it threatened rain, we still managed to brighten up our day with some delectable salads from Pret a Manger - including a fruit salad - and some merry japes. There may have also been some crisps - well that's a form of potato salad, I guess. Don't judge us.

MMMMMM crisps. I mean, salad. Er...
Here's the team deliberately not posing in any way, shape or form:

Don't mind if I do!
Well, we may not have been eligible for a prize, and we may not have had the most luxurious of surroundings, but for a tiny team to all be able to get out of the office for an hour, have some fun and games and relax a bit, I think we had a good time.

At the very least, we fulfilled the criteria: a picnic during a working day. It certainly beats our usual stick-to-a-rota-and-don't-take-too-long panic in the newsroom kind of a lunch.

Thanks, TravelSupermarket! 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Banishing the dietary blues

Tim Horton's delicious Oreo donut... mmm
All week I have endeavoured to keep my calorie content under 1000 while still having treats and varying my diet. I have also been getting off one stop early and walking home, as well as endeavouring to go for a little 10-15m walk at lunchtime. Largely, this has been a success.

There have been aberrations from this path of comestible austerity. I had a long weekend of feasting as a result of a birthday; albeit I did keep portions small and tried not to snack. Snacking is a problem. I have snacked in the evenings post-dinner, not much, but it has happened. Biscuits usually. Digestives. It is hard for me to turn down a few with a cup of tea. So I have hidden them in a cupboard.

One day, the train I needed was cancelled so I did the household shopping instead, resulting in me not getting off a stop earlier. That day I also felt weak and starved, so I had a piece of pie, mash AND bread and butter pudding for dinner. While everything was home-made, including the bread, this was still a carb and fat overload at 8pm - not good for weight loss.

Despite this one-week crash diet and more activity I do not feel I have lost anything. I still feel bloated and unfit. I hope that by giving up crisps and cake and cutting down on caffeine, portion sizes and bread that I will have lost some pounds this week. But I have not checked out the scales. I do not think weighing one's self daily is mentally or emotionally healthy, despite the temptation to do so. However I have in my mind a target.

I AM targeting an overall one-month weight loss of 20 pounds - roughly five pounds a week. This would get me back to the weight I was before I got engaged (and started embarking on eating out more). I even had to have two people squeeze my stomach and boobs into my wedding dress as I had not lost the additional pounds before the wedding. Well, the night before I did have a pizza ....

There are so many 'diet and exercise' books out there, website, adverts, etcetera. But
I do not see the point of these. This is a billion, no trillion-dollar industry and the only pounds I would shift would be from my bank account. Want to lose weight? Just use up more calories than you eat. Swim a couple of times a week (booked in my diary me going swimming before work twice next week). Eat fewer heavy, processed carbs. Lay off the bread and cheese. Walk a little more. Get up from the desk and move around at lunchtime if you can. Legally, you can. Walk up 100 stairs a day to the fifth floor instead of taking the lift. In any event, walk down the stairs. No crisps. No pancakes. No cheese. Or digestives. Seriously, how good is mature, creamy cheddar on a digestive? I absolutely love that combo. Mmmmm .... No! Stop it. No cheese or digestives.

Do I feel positive? Yes I do. I believe I can achieve my goal. I am working towards a healthier, less bloated, more-of-my-nice-clothes-fit-me-again me. Am I going to need help? Well yea.... I am. None of these scary diet pills or threatening personal trainer or bashing my body into submission. My body is a temple and food offerings are required (not Digestives). That said I am going to indulge in some spa therapies such as wraps and heat treatments on my saddle bags before my holiday. I managed to get a great 75% off deal on a course of six, which should help my side-buns get me back into my holiday clothes.

This is not all vanity, although I will grant that 80% of my need to slim down is vanity. Another 10% is fear... Fear of being a middle-aged woman in the workplace not being able to cut it with the young ones.

But 10% is medical. At my age, it is twice as hard to shift the jelly rolls and I have been told by my gynaecologist that based on my GP history, I am at the biggest BMI I have been since my GP records began (not too surprising given my records began when I was 12). She did suggest that if my body was struggling to cope with the extra weight on my small frame, this could be a factor in our so far unsuccessful attempts at becoming natural parents. So anything that can help - exercise, treatments, dieting, hiding the digestives - well this is all to the good and I will jump at the chance to get back into that little Figure-hugging Karen Millen dress for our 2nd wedding anniversary celebration.

Onwards and upwards? Well, not upwards, the weight needs to go down not up. Onwards and downwards, then, and let the good times no longer roll around over the tops of my barely buttoned-up jeans.*

*Until I get to Canada and eat lobster thermidor and Dairy Queen and Tim Horton's timbit donuts and my friend Helen's amazing salsa dip and her raisin bread...


Sent from my iPad

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Why I would buy a 2018 Greek Bond

The thing about financial journalists is that we've always been here before. No matter what it is, how mad it is or how bad it is, we've got an analogous situation secreted somewhere in our memory that presents itself just at the time the world seems to be going to pot.

This has been the predominant thought in my mind, like a tiny migraine fairy kicking my frontal lobe, every time I read about Greece.

We have been here before. We had the Russian default and the collapse of the Asian Tigers in the 1990s. We had the Latin American crisis. We have had a generation of Japanese children born without knowing what a rate rise is. We had the dot-com crash and the 'Sick Man of Europe' to contend with in the Noughties (that was Germany, by the way). Further back we had Black Monday in the 80s, and the India crisis in the 1970s. Throughout the decades and centuries, we have had Germany, Argentina, France, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus and a host of others defaulting on debt repayments and/or in a sovereign default situation.

Today the yield on a two-year Greek government bond rose to more than 50 per cent, up from 10 per cent in January. Back then, the world was trying to digest the news that Greece was en-route to achieving a primary budget surplus - excluding debt repayments - of €3.3bn. This was roughly equal to 3 per cent of GDP, with a minor budget deficit of €338m; equating to 0.2 per cent of GDP.

However the failure to repay the first installment of the IMF's loan - which demanded 1.6bn Euros, then its people issuing a resolute NO to the tough measures imposed by other creditors - of whom Germany is the largest - has resulted in another 'crisis' situation.

Will there be a Grexit? What will happen if Greece goes back to the Drachma? I cannot get a consensus from any expert. It will be the first time any country has left the Euro, so nobody really knows what will happen. I've seen release after release from every sort of company from foreign exchange to travel insurance to investment companies. None of them seem to know what effect this will have, but all speak of immediate woes - caps on bank withdrawals, haircuts on pensions, further pin-pricks in the proverbial bond bubble, investors possibly ditching Greece for Japan (yes, James Mackintosh highlighted in the FT on 30th July that this could be a consideration. Curious, non?).

According to Bloomberg, although the ECB has raised the pressure on Greek banks to tighten access to emergency credit - in other words, preventing the Greeks from getting their money out before the government imposes blanket and deep haircuts to individual accounts - there has already been an injection of £69bn into the economy over the recent months.

The only way that the banks in Greece can tap into this emergency aid is through collateral - such as government bonds - but while one jokes about the "free money" on a 50%-plus government bond, there is far too little cushion to protect investors. The return, they believe, is not worth the risk. And 2017 is an awfully long way away.

Two years in fact.

Two years.

A lot can happen in that time. Two years ago today, I was single, swimming around the internet to my heart's content, wagging my own tail where I wanted. Today I am a respectable mermaid.

Two years ago, we were in a similar crisis situation. Cyprus had to be bailed out. Cyprus was on the brink of collapse. Pensioners could not get their money out. Cypriots faced haircuts on their bank accounts. It had to appeal to the ESM for funding, as well as the IMF, which has so far disbursed about €742.4m to shore up Cyprus.

The fear then was that this tiny nation might cause a ripple effect among Eurozone nations who were just about recovering. The UK prime minister made several strident comments about bailouts, and called on Europe to protect the several hundred British pensioners who bought a home in the sun.

According to Bloomberg, Cyprus just about dodged the bullet of a "disorderly sovereign default and unprecedented exit from the euro" by agreeing to shrink its banking system in exchange for €10bn of aid. The Cyprus Popular Bank, 84 per cent owned by the government, was forced to shut down. Elderly Cypriots told of poverty as their pensions were cut. Food flew off the shelves on the island. Young people told of rising unemployment.

Cyprus Popular Bank. Image: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Then in June 2013, Cyprus's debt ratings were downgraded to "default" after it announced it would delay paying back E1bn ($1.3bn; £860m) of bonds. There were serious worries going into the summer about whether it could pay.

Two years later, I am sitting here reading a report from the IMF about the organised repayment structure of Cyprus.

The acting chairman of the IMF, David Lipton, has this to say: "Cyprus's Fund-supported reform programme continues to produce positive results. Economic and fiscal outcomes have been better than expected, with growth turning positive in the first quarter of 2015 and public finances exceeding targets.

"Liquidity and solvency in the banking system have improved, allowing the elimination of external payment restrictions."

While there is still low employment and the need to ensure ongoing financial stability, two years have proved well for Cyprus. Yes, Cyprus still has problems, Yes it is far smaller than Greece, its bailout fund was far smaller and yes it still needs work on effecting its economic recovery.

Of course, the parallels with Greece do not extend to the depth of the distress in Greece, the protracted poverty of its citizens and its bizzare tax system that has allowed the wealthiest to shelter their tax dues, while the modest earners have been wound up in so much red tape they are scarred for life.

Greece has a stridently socialist government; Cyprus was more moderate. Greece has a history of independence; Cyprus has been a little bit of a geographical whore, welcoming anyone from Crusaders to the Turks to the Brits. Greece has never given us 10 points in Eurovision; Cyprus always gives us 10 points.

Ok that last bit doesn't bear any relation to economic stability.

But in the grand scheme of things, although the world has a great love for the Hellenic Republic, its people, its culture and its history - heck I even married one - the effect of a Greek departure will, like Cyprus, be no more than a short-term shock.

According to Bank of America/ML research, the entire MSCI market cap weighting of Greece in the global index is lower than that of one company - the US furniture store Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Greece does not export cars, petroleum, gold or financial services. It exports ideas, intelligence, talent - sadly so for Greece and wonderfully so for the rest of us - and many parts thrive mostly on tourism.

OPEC will not have to hike oil prices if Greece leaves the Eurozone. The oil we get from the Hellenic Republic cannot go in our cars. Well, it should not go in our cars. I've never tried to be honest. Perhaps it does work.

Markets will get all nervous in July and then, like they always do in August, settle down into a mumbling state while bankers, their wives and their mistresses jet off to some foreign clime, while the rest of us mug it down here with gelato and baring our pasty white feet in the park. In public.

By the time September comes around the fear that the markets had already anticipated will have become a reality. This is good news. Why? Because fear is unknown. Markets do not like the unknown. At least when you know something you can price it in properly. So by then any effect of another, restructured, more fairly implemented debt package for a Eurozone Greece, or a loan restructuring plan underpinned by the EEF for a Euro-free Greece, will have already been priced in. Greece, says Morningstar, is a Black Sheep, not a Black Swan. It will not cause contagion.

Economists will be on a clearer footing to make even more wild predictions or sage warnings. Analysts will be able to see the wood for the terrible puns on 'Drama/Drachma' and start looking at the longer-term. Fund managers will pick through the debris to find the golden nugget companies that are going to be long-term winners. Investor sentiment will improve. Politicians will stop calling each other terrorists. The Germans will shut up (well maybe that won't happen) and perhaps stop being Europe's Money Police.

In two years' time, the current speculation and hyperbole over Greece will have diminished into 'how we are dealing with this situation'. Pensioners will get their money. People will start seeing more investment into improving the business workforce and reduce unemployment. There will be more food on people's plates.

It will be a long while off before Greece and her wonderful people recover from this traumatic time. I think it will take longer than two years before the IMF produces a paper such as the one it has written on Cyprus. In my estimation we can expect to see this sort of positive structural and financial reforms by the end of 2018.

Do not underestimate the emotional and physical effect this large-scale Monopoly played by Germany and its Eurozone allies have had on Greece. Old people have been pushed to suicide, families left wrenched apart by stress. Young graduates cannot afford to eat every day. Parents go to the food bank to feed their children. Little businesses have closed; shops have shut their doors for the last time. The elderly are left sitting, waiting for a pitiful amount of money to see them through the month. The hopes of Generation Y have been burned at the stake of Eurozone aggression.

This Instagram picture sums it all up, taken by someone in a bank in Athens over the past week.

But from the embers of this turbulence, a new order will rise. Greece has been here before. It will survive. Europe has been here before. It will be restored. The world has been here before. And each time it comes back a little wiser, a little stronger.

Will I buy a 2017 Greek bond? No. I couldn't anyway - I'm not an institution with the wealth needed to pick up some sovereign debt. But I would buy a 2018 Greek Bond. If my NS&I comes in next month, that is exactly what I will do. Because I will be turning to everyone and saying 'I told you so'.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

There's no place like gnome

Hey, how YOU doin?
We journalists get a lot of strange press releases. Mostly they are only odd because they have nothing to do with our line of work.

For example, for three years in a row, the DeutschePost service used to send me emails, in German, outlining new franking machines and ways to mark up commercial post cost-effectively. As interesting as this was, and helpful in expanding my knowledge of German with phrases and vocabulary that nobody, anywhere, outside of the postal service would ever use, it was quite annoying to get ambushed at 9am on a Monday morning by unsolicited and useless information.

But every now and then we get little gems that do have some relevance to our industry, but which seem to have been the brainchild of a slightly twisted genius PR, who is doing a sterling job in trying to make cynical journalists read their company news.

And this one certainly caught my eye. It was about protection. We cover protection. So I was already interested. I saw it was about home insurance - well, I thought, we don't cover home insurance but it is important to read around the subject matter, as it could have an angle for us.

So I opened it, to receive the warning:


I read it again. I was sure it had said 'home'.

But no. It definitely said 'gnome'. Now I don't know about you but my preference when it comes to garden gnomes is to take a heavy object - a baseball bat, say, or next-doors very ugly dog - and smash these ornaments out of existence. I just don't see the attraction. Garden ornaments such as slender metal herons poised by a pond, or a nice stone sundial, that I can cope with. A gnome, no. They're basically weird, staring albino smurfs that look, from several angles, like ceramic sexual predators. There's no place for a gnome in my home.

And yet here it was in black and white. People are stealing garden gnomes from houses (probably these folk should be thanked and given a mention in the New Year's Honours List) and leaving the gnome-owner out of pocket.

Apparently, in 2014, there were 11,000 incidents of loss or damage to UK gardens, and people were vastly under-insured.

Of this, 5,400 were burglaries. Now why anyone would want to steal this sort of thing is beyond my ken, but they do, and for some reason, people are upset.

Basically, this is how I see all gnomes. 

Some 10 per cent of all home insurance products do not cover your garden, so if someone steals your pot or pots (as appropriate), or pushes Matthew Henderson into the Easton's fish pond, ruining his trainers, their pond and killing all the fish, this is not covered on the home insurance policy. Of course, this is purely hypothetical and bears absolutely no resemblance to any real person or event.*

According to data from John Lewis Home Insurance, people will have to cough up, on average, £1,169 to fix the damage to property and possessions in the garden. For those who put a lot of time and effort into making their outside space pretty, that is a hefty sum to pay.

I do feel sorry for people who have invested time and energy and money into making themselves a beautiful green space, only to see things 'disappear'.

My friend's mother had a little stone Westie stolen from her lawn - a memorial of her little dog - and it was rumoured to have reappeared half a mile down the road in the 'garden' of a traveller camp. Luckily her son is also a police officer and word got out that it was his mother's stone dog that had gone missing. The dog was returned one night, none the worse for its experience.

Another friend had just bought £20,000 worth of beautiful bushes (they cost a lot to grow and maintain to a certain level before purchase), and several of these went missing before he had a chance to install them. I never asked whether his insurance covered the theft, but as he's about as financially literate as a mountain goat, I doubt it.

So what can you do to protect yourself? Well of course you can make sure that your insurance does cover such scurrilous lawn raids.

However, John Brady, head of insurance at John Lewis Home Insurance, also gives these top tips on keeping your garden secure this summer:

● Fix a good quality lock or padlock on the door of the shed, as well as any garden gates.
● Lock belongings in the shed overnight after use (barbecues, bicycles etc.), items left in the garden may not be covered for theft.
● Install automatic security lighting in the garden.
● A prickly hedge around the garden can help to deter intruders.

If all else fails, perhaps you should invest in a gnome. I've heard some of them can be pretty mean.

*This is exactly what happened and I am totally guilty.