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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.