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 Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here