Chill out about the debt bubble?

Not yet.

What role did high levels of household debt play in generating the crash and what do they mean for our economy over the next few years? 

Well-worn questions, you might think. And no shortage of people have asserted answers.  Following 2008, a whole new crunch-lit genre of books emerged to explore this. There is – or perhaps, was – something of a post-crash orthodoxy that the rise of easy credit, fuelled by run-away rewards for the super rich, and a squeeze elsewhere, encouraged ever greater borrowing. 

A favoured narrative, often echoed by the coalition, is that debt ballooned as consumers (and home buyers) went on an irresponsible binge – it was all demand-led.  Others argue, particularly in the US, that exploding debt reflects an act of policy – whether explicit or implicit – to increase the supply of easy credit for low and middle income groups who were seeing their wages stagnate.  From this perspective, it was less a story of families living beyond their means and more about coping when their means stopped growing. 

More recently, however, there has been a counterblast to these prevailing views.  The FT’s economics editor Chris Giles, a leading authority on our current economic predicament, maintains that fast-rising household debt should be greeted with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. Ben Broadbent of the Bank of England’s MPC makes a similar case. Higher debt is essentially about mortgages and it reflects rising house prices (let’s leave to one side for now the fact that rising debt and assets signifies a big transfer between the generations, benefiting the old at the expense of the young). And once we do take assets into account we find that the net financial position of households is roughly similar to the position twenty years ago. Relax.

Nor should we get het up about the banks having undertaken an orgy of easy and ill-judged lending. Few of the loans made to UK households have turned nasty. Banks made stupid mistakes, to be sure, but they mainly came in the form of bad loans made overseas, not in the UK (as highlighted in this good blog by Ben Chu discussing the speech by Broadbent). 

So, rather than fret about the enormous size of our debt overhang and what it means for our future growth prospects, we should move along and worry instead about something more meaningful.

This account is right, of course, to point out that not all the growth in household debt is problematic.  Plenty of households will have borrowed  more for an asset (a house) that is worth a bit more, and achieved this by taking on a debt they are capable of servicing. Nothing much wrong with that. But in scoring this point, advocates risk downplaying a bigger one: debt still matters.

First, the distribution of debt burdens across different income groups is important.  Aggregate data often conceals far more than it reveal. As the chart below shows, at the bottom of the income distribution the growth in consumption appears to have massively outstripped increases in income – unsustainably so.  (A health warning is necessary here: survey data on the lowest - and highest -  incomes can be highly imperfect, so a degree of caution is warranted on the precise numbers, but the overall pattern is likely to be correct). 

Source: NIESR analysis for the Resolution Foundation

What was driving this growth in consumption is less clear cut. Part of it is likely to be underlying shifts in the cost of living that bore down hard on low income families. Another element will have been increased mortgages (though the proportion of the poorest holding a mortgage barely rose from 1997-2007, so this isn’t likely to be the only thing going on here). And if the UK consumer is anything like their US counterpart, high levels of inequality may have played a role in generating ‘trickle-up consumption’ – whereby lower income groups strain to keep up with the spending of the affluent.  

Second, we shouldn’t be complacent about the number of bad loans or repossessions. Depending on the definition applied, between 5 per cent and 8 per cent of mortgages are  currently in forbearance – an agreement between mortgagors and their bank which usefully allows repayments to be rescheduled – but this stay of execution cannot be expected to last indefinitely or resolve the underlying affordability issues that hang over many households.

Third, the revisionist argument is in danger of downplaying the risks – potentially scary ones – of what might happen if, eventually, interest rates rise before we have strong household income growth (a point highlighted on this blog before).  True, at the moment, with the economy crawling along the floor and the euro-zone teetering on the brink, talk of higher interest rates feels very far-fetched.  But with inflation still stubbornly above target, and the Bank yet again claiming it will be another year before it falls into line (meaning inflation will have been above target for most of eight years) the medium term outlook for interest rates remains uncertain. At some point the interest rate hawks will regroup – and eventually a more normal level will return.  

All this matters greatly because a high debt burden means many households are already highly exposed; we just tend not to talk about it much because the headline Bank rate is so low. Consider the current burden of servicing mortgage payments for low to middle income households.  It is broadly similar, incredibly you might think, to the burden faced in the late 1990s when interest rates were 5 to 7 per cent. That’s partly due to the rapid growth in interest rate spreads, and partly due to the greater stock of household debt. 

An increased burden: proportion of gross income accounted for by mortgage payments among low to middle income owners

Source: Resolution Foundation 

Which takes us on to the final point: the extent to which the burden of debt will continue to bear down on UK consumers – or at least a sub-set of them. The truth is no-one really knows whether or how far household debt needs to fall. If we listen to McKinsey, we’d believe that the UK is only just beginning the painful adjustment – behind countries like the US – and it could take a decade before the ratio of UK household debt to disposable income returns to its pre-bubble path.  Other analysis  argues that to be "sustainable", household debt needs to fall from the current level of just below 150 per cent relative to income to nearer 115 per cent - a process that is likely to take until 2019 (after fiscal balance has been achieved). If so, deleveraging as well as public austerity will be a drag on consumers.  

Four years on and we’re still to have a full reckoning with the crisis. UK household debt didn’t cause it all. And high levels of debt aren’t always bad in themselves.  But we’d be silly to be sanguine.  The debt mountain makes us highly vulnerable, and will be living with it for some while yet.

In the shadow of a debt mountain. Photo: Getty Images

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty
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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?