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.

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Why Nigel Farage is hoovering up all the women I know

Beware young fogeys.

I can’t remember where I was when I first worked out that I was older than Nigel Farage. You’d think after that bombshell went off, you’d still be able to locate the crater. Anyway, there it is: the cut-price little Oswald Mosley is about a year younger than me.

I mention this not because I want to dwell on the nasty piece of shit, but because I’ve been having to face, at one remove, so to speak, the problem of young fogeyism. It seems to be all around. And not only that, it’s hoovering up women I know.

The first time it happened was with B——. She was going to come round last weekend, but then emailed to cancel the day before, because she was going to watch rugby – apparently there’s some kind of tournament on, but it never seems to end – with her boyfriend. How ghastly, I said, or words to that effect; I’d rather die.

She then made the Category One mistake of saying, “Rugby, cricket, all the same to me,” with a cheeky little “x” at the end of it.

I replied thus: Rugby is a violent and brutal game (the coy term is “contact sport”, which means you get to – indeed, are encouraged to – injure the opposing team as often as you can, in the absence of any other tactic) loved by fascists, or, at best, those with suspicious ideas about the order of society with which I doubt you, B——, would wish to be aligned. Also, only people of immense bulk and limited intelligence can play it. Cricket is a game of deep and subtle strategy, capable of extraordinary variation, which is appreciated across the class spectrum, and is also so democratically designed that even the less athletic – such as I – can play it. [I delete here, for your comfort, a rant of 800 or so words in which I develop my theory that cricket is a bulwark against racism, and rugby, er, isn’t.] Both are dismayingly over-represented at the national level by ex-public-school boys; cricket as a matter of historical accident (the selling-off of school playing fields under Thatcher and Major), rugby as a matter of policy. Have a lovely day watching it.

Two things to note. 1) This woman is not, by either birth or ancestry, from a part of the world where rugby is played. 2) You wouldn’t have thought she was one of nature’s rugby fans, as she considers that Jeremy Corbyn is a good person to be leading the Labour Party. (True, thousands of Tories think the same thing, but for completely different reasons.)

That’s Exhibit A. Exhibit B is my old friend C——, whom I haven’t seen for about five years or so but suddenly pops up from the past to say hello, how about a drink? I always liked C—— very much, largely because she’s very funny and, let’s be frank about this, something of a sexpot. She seems keen to bring someone over with her who, reading between the lines like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, I deduce to be her latest partner. The thing is, she says, she’s not sure he can come, because he might be going beagling.


Well, she does come round (alone, thank goodness) and she’s looking even better than I remember, and is even funnier, too, and she shows me some of the pictures she has put up on her profile page on some dating site, and they’re not the kind of photographs this magazine will ever publish, let’s leave it at that. (One of them even moves.) And, as it turns out – and it doesn’t really surprise me that much – the young beagler she is seeing is a good thirty years-plus younger than she, and his photograph shows him to be all ears and curls, like a transporter mix-up between Prince Charles and the young David Gower. Like B——’s young man, he is not called Gervaise or Peregrine but may as well be.

What on Earth is going on here? Can we blame Farage? I can understand the pull of the void, but this is getting ridiculous. Do they not quite understand what they’re doing? Actually, C—— does, because she’s had her eyes open all her life, and B——, her youth and political idealism notwithstanding, didn’t exactly come down in the last shower, either.

So what is it with these young wannabe toffs – one of whom isn’t even rich? “You’d like him,” C—— says, but I’m not so sure. People who go beagling sure as hell don’t like me, and I see no reason not to return the favour.

Well, I can’t thrash this out here. C—— leaves, but not before giving me the kind of kiss that makes me wish Binkie Beagley, or whatever his name is, would just wink out of existence.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times