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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation