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 a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Love him or loathe him, Britain needs more Alan Sugar

Big business is driving down wages, failing to invest, and funnelling rewards to the richest.  Entrepreneurs - and the state - need to fill the gap. 

The business baron who loves a bust-up has just been hired by Her Majesty’s Government to tour the country inspiring the next generation of apprentices. And he’s got his work cut out for him.  

Britain is loads more enterprising than it used to be - but the truth is, we’re miles behind our rivals. The good news is that Britain boasts nearly two million more firms than at the turn of the century. Over 40 per cent of Europe’s “unicorns” (new firms worth over $1 billion) are UK based. And by the next election, there will be more self-employed people than public service workers. 

But, here’s the bad news. Globally, we’re only 48th out of 60 in the global enterprise league table - and of the top 300 companies created in the last thirty years, only a handful are British. The only two British websites in the global 100 were actually founded in America - google.co.uk and amazon.co.uk. Worst of all, according to new House of Commons library figures which I commissioned this week, over a million people have left entrepreneurial activity in the last three years. 

Yet in my new history of British capitalism, Dragons, published today, I show how we’re a nation built by some of the greatest entrepreneurs on the planet. They were the buccaneers like Robert Rich, who built the trading companies and colonies of north America. The traders like Thomas Diamond Pitt who built old multi-nationals like the East India Company. They were industrial revolutionaries like Matthew Boulton who perfected the steam engines, and capitalists like Nathan Rothschild who built the bond market. Down the ages, there were of course great rogues and fraudsters, slavers, opium dealers and imperialists, like George Hudson, William Jardine and Cecil Rhodes. And through the centuries, women were in particular, were frozen out of the power structures of the market. 

But, throughout our past, great visionaries like George Cadbury, William Lever and John Spedan Lewis not only created new wealth but invented new ways to share it, from Port Sunlight to Bournville, to the board rooms of the John Lewis Partnership. 

Theirs is the entrepreneurial spirit we are going to need to rebuild Britain. Why? Because we can no longer leave the task to big business. Big business is driving down wages, failing to invest, and funnelling rewards to the richest. Today, UK firms are sitting on an extraordinary £522 billion in cash. And that’s after they lavished out £100 billion in share buy-backs in 2014. According to Larry Fink, the head of Black Rock which is the world’s biggest investment manager, the gargantuans of the global economy are simply failing to invest in the new jobs and industries of the future. 

So we’re depending on our entrepreneurs to turn new ideas into new industries and new industries into new jobs - whether it is in big data, cyber-security, driverless cars, the internet of things, or genetic medicine. It’s not just good for progress. It’s good for jobs. In fact, if our young people today were as entrepreneurial as their counterparts in Germany or America, its estimated they would create an extra 100,000 jobs. 

The big lesson from 600 years of the history of capitalism is simple: entrepreneurs make history - by inventing the future. So we need the government to start doing an awful lot more for the enterprise economy; spreading enterprise education, investing more in science, shifting government contracts to small high growth firms, and sorting out the banking system. But if we want a better future for Britain, we need an awful lot more entrepreneurs to do well. And so we need AlanSugar to succeed.  

Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain is published by Head of Zeus today

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.