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.

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Pity the Premier League – so much money can get you into all sorts of bother

You’ve got to feel sorry for our top teams. It's hard work, maintaining their brand.

I had lunch with an old girlfriend last week. Not old, exactly, just a young woman of 58, and not a girlfriend as such – though I have loads of female friends; just someone I knew as a girl on our estate in Cumbria when she was growing up and I was friendly with her family.

She was one of many kind, caring people from my past who wrote to me after my wife died in February, inviting me to lunch, cheer up the poor old soul. Which I’ve not been. So frightfully busy.

I never got round to lunch till last week.

She succeeded in her own career, became pretty well known, but not as well off financially as her husband, who is some sort of City whizz.

I visited her large house in the best part of Mayfair, and, over lunch, heard about their big estate in the West Country and their pile in Majorca, finding it hard to take my mind back to the weedy, runny-nosed little girl I knew when she was ten.

Their three homes employ 25 staff in total. Which means there are often some sort of staff problems.

How awful, I do feel sorry for you, must be terrible. It’s not easy having money, I said, managing somehow to keep back the fake tears.

Afterwards, I thought about our richest football teams – Man City, Man United and Chelsea. It’s not easy being rich like them, either.

In football, there are three reasons you have to spend the money. First of all, because you can. You have untold wealth, so you gobble up possessions regardless of the cost, and regardless of the fact that, as at Man United, you already have six other superstars playing in roughly the same position. You pay over the odds, as with Pogba, who is the most expensive player in the world, even though any halfwit knows that Messi and Ronaldo are infinitely more valuable. It leads to endless stresses and strains and poor old Wayne sitting on the bench.

Obviously, you are hoping to make the team better, and at the same time have the luxury of a whole top-class team sitting waiting on the bench, who would be desired by every other club in Europe. But the second reason you spend so wildly is the desire to stop your rivals buying the same players. It’s a spoiler tactic.

Third, there’s a very modern and stressful element to being rich in football, and that’s the need to feed the brand. Real Madrid began it ten years or so ago with their annual purchase of a galáctico. You have to refresh the team with a star name regularly, whatever the cost, if you want to keep the fans happy and sell even more shirts round the world each year.

You also need to attract PROUD SUPPLIERS OF LAV PAPER TO MAN CITY or OFFICIAL PROVIDER OF BABY BOTTLES TO MAN UNITED or PARTNERS WITH CHELSEA IN SUGARY DRINK. These suppliers pay a fortune to have their product associated with a famous Premier League club – and the club knows that, to keep up the interest, they must have yet another exciting £100m star lined up for each new season.

So, you can see what strains and stresses having mega money gets them into, trying to balance all these needs and desires. The manager will get the blame in the end when things start to go badly on the pitch, despite having had to accommodate some players he probably never craved. If you’re rich in football, or in most other walks in life, you have to show it, have all the required possessions, otherwise what’s the point of being rich?

One reason why Leicester did so well last season was that they had no money. This forced them to bond and work hard, make do with cheapo players, none of them rubbish, but none the sort of galáctico a super-Prem club would bother with.

Leicester won’t repeat that trick this year. It was a one-off. On the whole, the £100m player is better than the £10m player. The rich clubs will always come good. But having an enormous staff, at any level, is all such a worry for the rich. You have to feel sorry . . .

Hunter Davies’s “The Beatles Book” is published by Ebury

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories