We need to support economic growth and the living standards of the self-employed. Photo: Flickr/milk_p
Show Hide image

Is being self-employed becoming the new normal?

In the last four years, 40 per cent of new jobs have been in self-employment. This is more likely to be a permanent shift than a temporary phenomenon.

Much has been made of the rise of the UK self-employed, and indeed it looks like they’re here to stay. Over one in seven of the workforce is self-employed; from rent-a-chair hairdressers to the owners of tech start-ups, the self-employed are everywhere. This level of self-employment puts us above the European average, an unusual position for a western European economy.

The surge in self-employed workers has driven our jobs recovery, 40 per cent of new jobs in the last four years have been in self-employment, and many commentators are delighted with the figures. But, as IPPR’s new report shows, no other country in Europe has relied on growth in self-employment to the same extent. Admittedly many countries are yet to see jobs growth of any kind, but Germany, amongst others, has seen jobs growth composed entirely of new employee jobs, along side a fall in the number of self-employed.

Self-employment is often used as a synonym for entrepreneurship; and of course we want innovation and creativity in the UK economy – these inputs, which are sometimes found in self-employment, can fuel growth. But if high self-employment rates are the new normal, then there’s a lot more than entrepreneurship for policymakers to consider.

There are many differences between Germany and the UK’s self-employed: German self-employed workers are more likely to have their own employees (44 per cent of them do, compared to the UK’s 17 per cent) and in Germany they are more likely to be highly-qualified where as in the UK self-employed workers tend to be lower levels of qualification than the average worker.

One of the most troubling findings about self-employed workers in the last couple of years has been the fall in their average earnings. IPPR research shows that a typical self-employed worker in the UK earns just over half the amount a typical employee earns. This has slid from around three quarters in 2007. Earnings growth has been poor for employees throughout this period – so this relative fall for the self-employed could represent an even greater decline in their living standards. Similar trends have been seen in other European countries, although Germany has seen a much lesser fall.

Only 9 per cent of self-employed workers were receiving training in 2012 compared to 17 per cent of employees. This figure has fallen by six percentage points since 2007. Difficulty accessing training may have knock on effects on the ability of new business owners to grow and develop their company – critical to the contribution of entrepreneurship to economic growth. For sole traders, a lack of training may mean limited progression opportunities and a more difficult route out of low pay. Government policies must adjust to the new labour market reality by boosting the support available to self-employed workers to access training and develop their skills.

Between 2007 and 2012 the number of self-employed workers looking for another job doubled, with the main reason for this cited as needing a job with more hours of work. This combined with relatively low earnings suggests that our new self-employed jobs may not be the entrepreneurial success stories we need. Instead the rise in self-employment partly represents a growth in hidden underemployment. It might, like the proliferation of zero hours contracts, be more evidence that being in work is no longer a sure fire way to escape poverty. After all, those living below the poverty line are now just as likely to be in work as out.

Nonetheless, IPPR research suggests that for some disadvantaged groups, self-employment can represent a valuable route into work. For mothers looking for flexible work; for older workers looking to top up their pension; and for migrants struggling with few contacts, starting a small business or working independently can provide a route into the labour market not available in the employee market. Being your own boss has great advantages, and in 2009 nearly half of Europeans expressed a preference for this way of working.

Policymakers need to consider self-employment carefully in order to support those who choose self-employment, most critically for those that haven’t really chosen self-employment at all but have turned to it as a last resort. High self-employment levels are the new normal and this means we need to support economic growth and the living standards of the self-employed.

Izzy Hatfield is a researcher at IPPR

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?