It's not burdening our children with debt that should worry us

Leaving our children without assets is a far greater problem than "saddling" them with debt.

It is irresponsible to saddle our children with debt.

One of the most compelling, at least superficially, arguments for austerity. It is used globally; it resonates powerfully. After all, it appeals to the very best facets of human nature – the instinct to nurture; the wish to leave things better for future generations – and is, therefore, almost irresistible. But there are few things more dangerous than rhetoric designed to entangle the heart, while bypassing the brain.

Let us suppose that I knew, tomorrow I would be no more. The appointment has been made; the plane tickets to Geneva have been booked. If I were leaving behind my house to my child, encumbered as it is with a mortgage, would I worry? It is a huge amount of debt, but the house is worth almost double its mortgage. The interest is low. To look at that scenario and arrive at the conclusion I am “saddling my child with debt” would be highly irrational. I would have left them with positive equity.

It is illogical to assess the legacy we bequeath to the next generation, solely in terms of debt. Assets should form part of the equation.

This was precisely what our parents’ generation decided to do. And their parents’ before them. National debt, as a percentage of GDP, was much higher from the 20s to the 70s than it is now. But they made the positive choice of bequeathing it to us, as well as a world-class National Health Service, free education, thriving industry, bright prospects and a system of welfare which provided a safety net for the less fortunate.

Had they looked at debt in isolation, they would never have achieved any of these things. Luckily, they did not. They left us with positive equity.

The proposition put forward by the coalition government in support of their programme of cuts, is the bequest of a clean slate. In the current economic climate, however, a clean slate means clean of assets, not clear of debt.

With the economy stagnant or shrinking, the reality is that this government will fail to make a dent in the deficit and actually increase debt. According to the OBR our annual deficit is falling at exactly the same rate it was projected to do before any of these cuts. The national debt is projected to rise by a staggering half a trillion pounds, even by the most lenient of estimates. The OBR now admits that austerity is hurting the economy. The IMF now admits that austerity is hurting the economy.

On the other hand, there is another, even gloomier forecast. By squeezing ordinary people, by forcing them to remortgage, to use credit cards, to run to the nearest payday lender, private household debt is predicted to balloon by an additional half a trillion pounds.

So, forget this insidious idea that we might leave our children with a clean slate. It is fantasy. In fact, under this government, we will leave our children with at least one trillion more debt than we had in 2010. The only intelligent conversation to be had, is whether we leave our children with the assets, skills, environment and tools to manage that debt or not.

Not all asset stripping is fiscally responsible in the long term. Not every expense incurred results in debt. Off-the-cuff, misconceived policies to try and regulate a rampant energy industry are ample demonstration of that truth; a conservative government flailing in a futile attempt to control the profiteering which resulted from another conservative government’s privatisation programme.

We are paying through the nose, both in terms of tickets, subsidies and maintenance, for a rail network franchise system which is manifestly failing. Meanwhile, the part of the network which has been state-run for the last few years (as a result of the last botched franchise), is better and cheaper than it was in private hands and turning a profit.

We pay to bail out private banks, then complain that they are not lending to SMEs, when we actually part-own two of the biggest. Nationalisation is both a rational solution and a dirty word.

Meanwhile, we are allowing these failed experiments to go on, to expand even; the self-interested privatisation of the NHS, the cut-price sale of local council assets and social housing, the dismantling of the welfare state, the farming out of police and prison services, the poisonous influence of profit on our schools. Within five years, the UK will be spending less on public services than any developed nation.

Make no mistake. What is actually being proposed, is leaving our children with negative equity. The debt will still be there, but the assets will be gone. Important assets at that, the absence of which will translate into higher living costs, in perpetuity. The sale of state housing inflates rents. Lack of a welfare system deflates wages. Tuition fees enslave the next generation to financial institutions which we know to be corrupt. Healthcare bills are the single biggest cause of bankruptcy in the US.

Maybe this is the future that we genuinely want. But let us consider all the arguments, instead of wielding an axe at any expense with no thought of whether it is necessary or cost-effective. Let us look at debt in conjunction with the assets and values that would also form part of our bequest.

Our current predicament is precarious. Even more critical, then, to make rational, informed and brave choices - rather than terrified, ill-thought ones. For our sake and that of our children.

Demonstrators call for an end to the national debt outside Parliament last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Getty
Show Hide image

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?