If we’re past the worst, then no one thought to tell consumers

British households have become more, not less, concerned over the last five years.

At a time of growing optimism among UK policy makers that the worst might be behind us, ASR’s latest Survey of UK Household Finances suggests that the erstwhile engine of the economy, the consumer, is a long way from returning to health. Despite the glee shown in some quarters over the UK economy’s 0.3 per cent growth in the first quarter of this year, 23 per cent of working-age households think the UK is in depression, while a further 45 per cent believe it is in recession. British households have become more, not less, concerned over the last five years, with one in four worried for their job security. This is generating a cautious attitude towards spending and saving decisions that shows no sign of letting up.

Prior to 2007, the UK experienced a rapid rise in household debt relative to incomes, reaching a level that surpassed all other G7 economies. There were three trends underlying this increase. First, the UK saw a substantial rise in income inequality, but one that was not matched by an equivalent disparity in spending habits. Second, the UK was subject to growing regional divergences, with average incomes in London and the South East pulling further away from the rest of the UK. Third, financial innovation allowed greater access to credit; by 2007, 12,000 different mortgage products were available in the UK, with roughly two thirds targeted at ‘credit impaired’ borrowers. Simultaneously, the average loan-to-income ratio among first-time buyers rose from roughly 2½ times to almost 3½. Together, these trends imply young households at the lower end of the income distribution living outside London accounted for a disproportionate share of the rise in debt.

Sure enough, the Household Survey indicates that these are the individuals now under most financial stress. Of those earning less than £15,000 per year, 93 per cent worry about their financial situation and 85 per cent believe they are saving too little. Of those in this income group with outstanding debts, 54 per cent feel they are too high relative to their incomes and 43 per cent have had trouble meeting their interest payments over the last year.

This matters for the macroeconomy, since it is the distribution of debts that determines their sustainability rather than their aggregate size. With credit remaining ‘tight’, fiscal consolidation hitting the regions hardest and youth unemployment running at elevated rates, it is little wonder that the economy has struggled to get back to growth – the UK’s old growth model is broken. Rebalancing is proving to be a slow and painful process.

This difficult backdrop is splintering the voting base away from the three traditional mainstream political parties, and has proved a gift for the insurgent UK Independence Party (UKIP). By far the biggest losers from UKIP’s rise have been Conservatives, who have shed as many as 25 per cent of their 2010 voters to the party. 

Measures that might help those under greatest financial duress, such as reducing the pace of fiscal tightening, are likely to prove unpopular with those remaining faithful to the Tories. According to our survey, 92 per cent of Conservative Party supporters believe that addressing the national debt should remain a priority, and 64 per cent approve of the current government’s handling of the economy. More strikingly, however, it is not clear that such a move would curry favour among those it would be targeted at helping: those struggling to manage their own debts are marginally more inclined to agree that tackling the government’s debts should be a priority. The Tories look damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

A chasm has opened up between Tory supporters and the rest. Just 36 per cent of Conservatives say they are worse off since the last election, compared with 64 per cent of other voters. A striking feature of the survey is just how closely aligned UKIP, Labour and non-affiliated voters look in many respects (see chart 1) and how far from the rest the average Tory supporter is. In the absence of economic recovery, the Conservative Party will face an uphill struggle to win back swing voters.

All that said, there could be a chink of light for the Conservatives. Our survey indicates a growing belief that house prices will rise over the coming 12 months; on balance, 17 per cent think home values are more likely to rise than fall. The long-term efficacy of the recently-announced Help to Buy scheme seems questionable, but it already appears to be stirring up interest in the housing market. The motivation behind this seems quite simple: historically, there has been a strong correlation between house prices and consumer confidence in the UK. It seems like a gamble, but with few alternative options, it is a gamble worth taking.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

George Osborne arrives to attend a press conference at the conclusion of the IMF mission to the UK. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR