Will squeezed households really borrow more to prop up living standards?

Office for Budget Responsibility is challenged over the question of personal debt.

What are we to make of different views on the extent to which growing household debt will offset the squeeze in living standards in the coming years?

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility caused a bit of a stir at the time of the Budget when it suggested that household debt is set to rise over the rest of the parliament – from £1.6trn in 2011 to £2.1trn in 2015, or from 160 per cent of household disposable income to 175 per cent. Rising debt will sit alongside low savings, so the ratio of household saving to disposable income will fall to roughly 3.5 per cent – half its average over the past 50 years – for the duration of the OBR's forecast period.

The clash between these projections and the government's favoured narrative concerning the need for the country to rein in its debt-fuelled spending habits – public and private – attracted some attention and prompted an online debate about whether tighter fiscal policy is shifting the balance between public and private debt.

However, the underlying economic implications, and their impact on household living standards between now and the next election, remain largely unprobed. Last week the OBR published a little-noticed note that set out to clarify why it has changed its projections for household debt since last June. It makes for interesting reading – but doesn't really answer the most fundamental questions.

The most important argument that the OBR makes is that – regardless of high existing levels of debt – household indebtedness will continue to rise over the next four years as families battle to sustain their living standard, running down savings and ratcheting up more borrowing. And it is worth noting that the OBR explicitly says that its projection for household debt is premised on steadily easing credit conditions and a stronger housing market.

The savings ratio

The critical question is whether the OBR is right about how households will react: is a further rise in personal indebtedness, already at historically unprecedented levels, a realistic account of how households at the sharp end of the living standards squeeze will behave over the medium term in the post-crunch economy?

No one really knows. We can't. Never in modern times have we seen the combination of such a large fall in household incomes, the severity of the shock to the credit system, and plummeting consumer confidence. So it is very hard to know what the OBR bases its behavioural assumptions on when it claims that greater debt will prevent falling disposable incomes feeding through into reduced expenditures.

It's a view that seems to run counter to a range of recent expert opinions and forecasts. For example, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has referred to the OBR projection on the scale of the increase in household debt this year as "wildly optimistic" and at odds with its own forecasts, while PwC has projected household debt to be falling as a proportion of GDP throughout this parliament.

Roger Bootle of Deloitte has just marked down consumer spending growth in 2011 to -1 per cent, and takes issue with the notion that household savings will fall further in the medium term, saying that tight credit conditions and the current weakness of consumer sentiment will "surely mean that households will want to save more, rather than less". Likewise, the NIESR, in its most recent quarterly update, predicts that following a short-term reduction this year, the savings ratio will rise steadily until 2015.

Analysts in the US are similarly sceptical about the scope for medium-term falls in their savings ratio: Cardiff Garcia has argued in the Financial Times that, while such a position might boost the economy in the short term, "nobody would think it healthy" for the savings rate to return to the "absurd" levels of the mid-Noughties.

Room for manoeuvre?

So much for the forecasters and pundits; what does the public say? Despite a well-documented shift from borrowing to saving since the start of the credit crunch, UK households remain severely debt-stressed. Bank of England polling data shows that, at the end of 2010, half of all households said they were concerned by their level of debt.

Borrowing more remains off limits for many: one-third reported suffering some form of credit constraint. At the same time, one in three households reported savings of under £500 – leaving little scope for protecting living standards by dipping into these funds.

Our own analysis at the Resolution Foundation shows that those on low to middle incomes face sharper constraints than better-off households. As the chart below shows, while around one-third (31 per cent) of households in the top half of the income distribution said they were finding it harder to borrow to finance spending in 2010 than in 2009, this rose among those on low to middle incomes to over half (53 per cent), up from just 16 per cent in 2007.

And these are exactly the people who are going to feel the fall in living standards most acutely and who, presumably, the OBR expects to borrow more. Looking to the future, one-fifth of all households said they were saving more in anticipation of fiscal tightening. Just 3 per cent were planning on spending more.

Taken together, these findings provide powerful grounds for asking what would happen if the OBR used different assumptions about how households may run down, as well as build up, debt during the prolonged fall in living standards. Without this, existing projections appear to be a bit of a punt.

No doubt setting out different scenarios for debt in this way would expose some uncomfortable findings: growth is bound to be weaker if household expenditure tracks falling disposable income more tightly than the OBR currently expects. Projections for net exports and business investment can't just be pumped up to take up the slack. But that isn't a reason to avoid the issue.

Despite all the frothy rhetoric about "rebalancing of the economy", the growth of household consumption will be absolutely pivotal in the resumption of steady growth. Indeed, the key factor determining the strength of the UK recovery will be the uncertain reactions of millions of households, which are already close to the edge, to further falls in disposable income. The question of whether ever more personal debt can be used to fill the growing gap in living standards deserves far more serious scrutiny than it has received to date.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive and Matthew Whittaker senior economist, both at the Resolution Foundation.

This post originally appeared on the Resolution Foundation blog.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.