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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.