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.