When rates finally rise, things are set to get nasty

Nothing turns a dry economic story into a turbo-charged political one quite like fear of losing the

A good recession followed by a bad recovery. Trite lines like this are often wide of the mark, but this one bears some truth. The fallout of the economic downturn over the last few years -- though harsh -- was less gruesome than first feared in terms of overall unemployment, bankruptcies and repossessions. The risk is that far more misery than might have been expected lies ahead.

Everyone knows that sooner or later (and it will probably be later) interest rates will have to go up, and when they do it's going to hurt a lot of people who are already sore from the effort of keeping up with a rising cost of living. After stagnant wages, reduced working hours, cuts to tax-credits, higher inflation and escalating energy prices, the next chapter of Britain's living standards squeeze is set to be climbing interest rates.

The immediate threat of a rate rise has receded due to pitiful growth figures over the last two quarters, which leading forecasters say are set to continue (in case you were distracted by other news, the NIESR have predicted growth of 0.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2011), and, thankfully, a slight dip in inflation. But make no mistake -- unless the economy goes into freefall, in 2012 we can expect to see steadily climbing interest rates.

We don't have a clear sense yet of what the impact will be. One reason for this, rather surprisingly, is that we don't really know exactly how many people are already struggling in some way with their mortgage. There are, of course, statistics about levels of home repossessions -- and they have remained very low. In part, this is because this recession, far more than previous ones, has been characterised by people avoiding the horror of losing their home by striking some sort of agreement (known as "forbearance") with their bank, which allows them to reschedule their repayments, often by shifting from a "repayment" to an "interest only" mortgage for a period. Forbearance has been helpful to many people. But it buys time; it doesn't solving the underlying problem.

What is becoming clear is that the number of households covered by forbearance is very large -- and this is now starting to spook our economic authorities. The FSA highlighted this earlier in the spring, and the Bank of England has just chosen to do so in its recent Financial Stability Report.

The first line of support to households who get pushed over the edge is often those who provide debt advice. So it is telling that the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, a charity that helps those in financial distress, has issued a stark new report on financial fragility in Britain. It estimates that over 750,000 mortgages are in some form of forbearance, and when this is added to the number of mortgages in arrears, the authors get a grand total of 1.2 million mortgages under pressure -- that's more than one in ten of all outstanding mortgages. If correct, this is scary. It points to a potentially far bigger problem for households in the years ahead then you would think simply by looking at the Council of Mortgage Lenders projections for repossessions.

This warning shot from CCCS also helps to focus attention on a little appreciated but wider problem: the rising burden of debt repayment for low-to-middle income families, which has grown over recent years, reaching the levels of the early 1990s when interest rates were dramatically higher (see the chart). How can that be right, you might ask, given interest rates have been on the floor for some time?

gavin kelly graph

Source: Source: Growth without gain?, Resolution Foundation, May 2011

Part of the answer is the larger mortgages that people took out over the last decade due to rising house prices, and the easy availability of 100 per cent mortgages (for instance almost one in three first time buyers on a low-to-middle income in the years running up to the financial crisis used one). It also reflects the fact that lower interest rates often didn't get passed on to borrowers - particularly lower income ones. And let's not forget that household incomes have actually been falling recently, making it harder to service debts. So perhaps we shouldn't be too shocked by alarming Shelter research which finds that over two million people used credit cards to pay their mortgage or rent in 2010 -- an increase of almost 50 per cent in a year.

Given this backdrop, if the cost of debt repayment shoots up alongside higher interest rates, at the same time as living standards continue to be squeezed -- as is expected throughout 2012, with inflation continuing to outpace wages, and government cuts to tax-credits and benefits ratcheting up -- then we can expect the consequences to be dire. Debt advice charities are already starting to think about the need to scale up their operation to meet higher demand. Indeed, it is the severity of the this risk to household budgets (and to the banks that have lent to them) that will be one of the key factors restraining the Bank of England, who will otherwise be itching to return interest rates to a more normal level as soon as is feasible.

At the moment, all this is under the radar. Issues like forbearance struggle to make it onto the money pages of the papers. That's sure to change. Nothing turns a dry economic story into a turbo-charged political one quite like fear of losing the family home. This could get nasty.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.