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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.