Britain is gripped by unsustainable debt-fuelled consumption. So fashionable has this charge become that Mark Carney was forced this week to deny that the Bank of England was responsible. The governor is right.
Were households splashing out after getting deep in debt, you would expect to see solid evidence in the data. But household consumption has grown slower than the economy since the recovery started and the appetite for debt has fallen sharply. Households have increased their outstanding debts £5.1bn on average every quarter since 2009, nearly four times less than the £22bn rate between 1997 and 2009.
We know credit bubbles can be dangerous and there are some legitimate pockets of concern: buy-to-let borrowing and car finance have been increasing at unsustainable rates close to 10 per cent but these are relatively small parts of UK finance. Britain’s households in aggregate are not guilty of running a debt-fuelled recovery.
Even armed with these inconvenient facts, ill-informed commentary accuses George Osborne of seeking to ramp up household debt in a misguided effort to run a budget surplus. If government runs a surplus, households must go into deficit, the argument goes.
At a naive level, this accounting identity holds, but it is entirely irrelevant to household decisions about debt because the vast majority of borrowing comes from other households and has nothing to do with government. The chancellor’s move towards a surplus can come with higher, lower or the same level of debt, as demonstrated by recent reductions in government borrowing alongside a declining burden of household debt.
Failures of memory also poison clear thinking. British debt levels might be high internationally and the UK banking system failed spectacularly in the crisis but the two are not linked. Banks got into trouble as a result of their speculation, their foreign lending, their commercial property loans and their reliance on flighty funders; their mortgage books were remarkably secure.
Instead of appealing to myths, the question of debt should begin and end with the health of household balance sheets. Official figures show that after deducting debt, net household assets stood at 7.67 times income in 2014, a stronger financial position than at any point in almost 100 years. It is no wonder that the savings ratio is falling. British households can afford it.
With recent retirees enjoying the best private pension provision of any generation to date, we should expect the savings ratio to continue falling. Spending your accumulated savings in retirement is not a sign of unsustainable profligacy.
Averages can conceal big changes in the distribution of debt, which is always a greater burden on the poorest or those most vulnerable to a change in circumstances. Here, we can reassure ourselves that wealthy households still tend to have the largest debts. This distribution has not changed significantly over the past decade. Britain does not have a US-style subprime problem.
But a generational divide is emerging with younger people finding they generally have to borrow more and on extended terms to afford to house themselves like their parents.
This is not a problem of debt or consumption; it is the fault of decades of absurd planning and housebuilding restrictions pushing up prices. If there were a sudden surge of new houses built, lowering prices, that would be something to celebrate yet would also mean that the sale of these new homes would raise household debt levels.
The concern about household debt is misguided. Debt did not cause the banking crash, it is not driving Britain’s economic recovery, it is not needed for Mr Osborne’s deficit reduction to work, it is dwarfed by rising household assets and its distribution has not changed materially. Why worry? That is a question without a compelling answer.
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