If inflation is a bad thing, why is government policy designed to make us want more of it?

Britain is awash with debt, while government policy encourages inflation. But theoretical inflation sorts a lot of stuff out, while actual inflation will hurt.

So, you want to buy your first house. Let's assume (I know, I know, cloud cuckoo land, but let's go with it) you've scraped together a deposit and have persuaded someone to give you a mortgage. You'll be borrowing, on average, around £117,000. Oh, but that's assuming you're not in London. If you are, you're looking at more like £193,000 instead.

You've probably got some other debt outstanding too; most of us have. Last May, the average consumer borrowing - credit cards, overdrafts, car loans and so on - stood at around £3,207. That's an average, mind, so for a lot of us it's a lot more. Oh, and it had, by June, risen - only by £4, admittedly, but still, every little hurts.

Then there are student loans. In 2011, the Push university guide reckoned these averaged out at around £5,680 per student per year. That was before the new tuition fee regime, of course, and now you're probably looking at somewhere closer to £12,000 to cover fees plus maintenance. The resulting hole in your finances isn't really debt - even the government doesn't expect most of it to be paid back - but is more like an extra tax levied on those foolish enough to be born after 1993 (serves ‘em right). Nonetheless, it does mean yet another big red stain on the finances of those starting out in life.

The point, in case it's not quite sledgehammer enough for you, is that Britain is awash with debt - and the younger you are, the more likely you are to be drowning in it. Coalition ministers have spent a lot of time talking about how immoral it is to run up the nation's credit card and leave our children to pay it off. But they've seemed surprisingly blasé about running up our children's actual credit cards, and have cheerfully gone around loading them up with tuition fees and inflating the housing bubble all over again. Reports from the Office of Budget Responsibility, indeed, have been pretty explicit in their expectation that cuts to the deficit would be matched by a vast increase in personal debt.

All this is obviously horrible for those who'll have to pay those debts. But I wonder if it could have a more profound effect on the nation's attitude to its finances.

We're still living in an economic consensus defined, broadly, by the Thatcher government. For much of the seventies, inflation had run at over 10 per cent, which was commonly thought A Bad Thing. Thatcher's economic policies - monetarism, deindustrialisation, a strong pound - were all intended to get inflation down to the sort of level which didn't scare the bejesus out of investors, and keeping inflation low has been one of the main goals of policy ever since.

Now, though, a large and growing chunk of the population would, in the long term, do quite nicely out of spot of inflation. More than that, they're relying on it: some of the mortgages handed out over the last decade haven't got a hope of being repaid unless nominal wages start to spiral.

Think this through for a moment. If you woke up tomorrow to find that wages and prices had both doubled overnight, then the value of whatever debt you're sitting on has effectively halved. More than that, though, the value of the debt the government is sitting on has halved, too. Oh, and with a cheaper pound, suddenly Britain's exports look more competitive too. Halve the value of money in this country, and a lot of our problems suddenly look soluble. (This is economic model that used to work so well for Italy.)

The real world is not so kind, of course, and real inflation would be a lot more painful than that. Interest rates would rise. Holidays would become more expensive. The five or six British people still sitting on savings would see them whittled away, and anyone about to retire gets shafted.

Worst of all, wages are extremely unlikely to move in lockstep with prices, and those that lag most would likely be the ones paid to those with least bargaining power. That means, in all probability, the poorest. Those same people are also the least likely to benefit from an increase in asset prices (houses again, mostly) that'll accompany any inflation.

Oh, and there's the tiny problem that the deficit means we're still dependent on the faith and credit of the international bond markets. Theoretical inflation sorts a lot of stuff out. Actual inflation will hurt.

Nonetheless, though you'll never catch them saying it out loud, this seems to be the plan the government have lumped for. To get out of the mess we're currently in, there are only really three options. One is a sustained and historic boom (unlikely). Another is default (horrible). The third is to try to inflate the debt away and hope nobody notices. If you're young, middle class and sitting on a massive mortgage, this works in your favour. If you're an investor, a pensioner, or, worst of all, poor, it doesn't.

All the reasons inflation was bad in the Seventies still apply. There are many good reasons for wanting to keep it down. But we can't have everything. The larger the share of the population that is sitting on unsustainable debts, the less frightened of inflation the electorate will become. Any monetarist baby boomers out there might want to think about that, next time they're talking gleefully about how much their house is worth.

A boy with a kite made of banknotes in Germany during the depression of 1922 when escalating inflation rendered much of the currency worthless. Photo: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?