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.
 

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder