The personal debt bubble is fit to burst

We're almost in Wongaland already, writes Carl Packman.

Back in March 2012 the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) at least entertained the notion that economic growth would come from places other than an increase in household debt. Exports, investment, the lot. Today it doesn't bother, the consumer will have to go this alone, even with bank lending squeezed and wages left wanting. 

Even George Osborne, during his Mais Lecture in February 2010, offered us this gem: “The overhang of private debt in our banking system and our households weigh heavy on future prosperity”. How right he was, but his response was to lead us down the “road to Wongaland”. 

Despite the optimism of low interest rates, at least until unemployment rates are sorted out, critics have pointed out that Mark Carney's calls are really just a return to days where recovery will be fuelled by consumption and rising debt – as if we need more of that. 

Sure, people are returning to the shops, no doubt spurred on by the shiny weather, which is great for the economy, but what is the real upshot? Wages are falling in real terms and household debt is 153 per cent of GDP. On average each household in the UK is bagged with nearly £8000 in unsecured debt. Is the hope that we will get into more debt the only tool in the bag for economic growth?

Of course we should remind ourselves who the real winners are. Last year PwC said that credit cards were suffering a “mid-life” crisis as borrowers were using them less and taking out unsecured loans at a much faster rate. We're being told to spend more but we cannot afford to? The winners: who else but payday lenders.

In 2009, during the economic crisis, the payday lending industry was worth £900m. A mere four years later and the industry is worth over £2bn. One well-known player in the industry, The Money Shop, had 34 staff and a turnover of £2.9m in 1998, today with 2,300 staff their income is £172.3m. 

Not long ago the economist Tim Harford tried to allay our fears and said that compared to other forms of consumer credit lending the payday lending industry was relatively small and not to be worried about. But their rapid growth from an industry worth a measly £100m in 2004 should be better noted.

The industry is small in comparison but is growing at a far more accelerated rate than its mainstream counterparts. CityWire recently estimated that more than half (52 per cent) of new consumer credit loans are being made by "other" banking institutions and non-banks including non-standard mortgage lenders and sub-prime lenders such as pawnbrokers and payday lenders. 

And so it is, more of us are relying on high cost credit from payday lenders, personal debt profiles will grow dangerously large, less money will be circulated on the high streets, consumers will be less able to shield themselves from unseen financial shocks and the whole debt cycle starts again.

As the CityWire report notes, the OBR anticipated that a credit boom would sustain an economic recovery. But that boom is being held by fringe financial institutions such as payday lenders who are expensive and suck more money out of the economy than they put in. In turn the tune of increased payday lending, rather than being the silver bullet needed for economic growth, will be its death knell. 

If the economy is allowed to continue to run like this, with Britons being some of the most indebted in the world only able to supplement decreasing real wages and the rising cost of living with high cost credit, then a personal debt bubble will eventually burst. Osbornomics needs to change direction, fast. All the warning signs are there.

Cash Loans. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.