Cameron wants to reduce private debt - but when and how?

A rapid repayment of debt is a recipe for recession, not recovery.

According to reports this morning, David Cameron will use his conference speech this afternoon to call on Britain's households to pay down their debts. He will say that dealing with debt means not just paying down public debt but also "households - all of us - paying off the credit card and store card bills." Such comments would go beyond the government's existing argument about the importance of dealing with the public deficit to an argument that about reducing the UK's levels of personal debt.

What are we to make of this new message? In one sense it fits with the government's wider narrative of Britain having maxed out the nation's credit card. In this respect, Cameron's comments are a statement of the obvious, albeit an important one. The UK's household debt levels remain crushingly high both by historical and international standards. Sooner or later it's vital that they come down. The Prime Minister is also right to say that this was no ordinary recession, and that this will be no ordinary recovery.

But in another sense the comments are a dramatic and risky escalation of the government's argument on debt. That's because, although they fit the government's story, they run counter to the economic logic that underlies the current forecasts for UK recovery. As we pointed out earlier this year, the most recent forecasts from the Office Budget of Responsibility, published in March, say that the UK's stock of personal debt will rise, not fall, in the coming years - and not by a little but by a lot. The OBR projects that household debt will grow from £1.6 trillion in 2011 to £2.1 trillion in 2015, a rise from 160 percent of household disposable income to 175 percent. That growth is expected to sit alongside low savings, with the ratio of household saving to disposable income falling to roughly 3.5 percent - half its average over the past 50 years.

In the current economic climate, it's hard to overstate the importance of this difference of opinion over what will - or what should - happen to household debt. Put simply, the OBR's projections for growth rest on their forecasts for household consumption, which rest on their forecasts for household debt. If the OBR were to be proved wrong on debt - if it were to fall rather than rise - then their forecasts for consumption would presumably need to be downgraded, as would their forecasts for growth.

The following chart puts this is all into stark perspective. In all recent recessions in the UK, consumption growth had returned at this point, airlifting the economy to recovery. By contrast, today's trends in household consumption are a millstone around the neck of the economy.

Household consumption following the onset of recession
% fall in real total household consumption

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As well as running against OBR forecasts, the Prime Minister's message doesn't chime with the current reality of the household behaviour. Savings are currently falling not rising. The most recent data revealed that the household savings ratio had dipped from 5.1 to 4.6 percent. A recent poll carried out for the Resolution Foundation by ipsos MORI helped to explain why: almost half of all people on low-to-middle incomes now say they are running out of cash every month, and more than one in four say they're unable to make regular savings. People aren't overspending - they are reducing their savings just to stay afloat.

Of course, none of this is to deny that private debt must fall. The question is: when and how? Reducing the UK's stock of personal debt is likely to be a slow process. It needs to take place via a careful paying down of bills on the back of a recovery of real earnings, enabling families to save a bit more without immediate and dramatic reductions in consumption. The alternative option - a rapid repayment of debt at a time of falling incomes, fragile consumption, rapidly weakening export markets, and sharp public sector cuts - is a recipe for recession, not recovery. The Prime Minister should be careful what he wishes for.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.