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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle