“Britain’s supposed economic recovery rests on a personal debt timebomb.” I’m sure you have read about this many times. If it often accompanied by the prediction that it will all end in tears at some point, just like it did last time. Now I do not want to flip to the other extreme and suggest everything is hunky dory. For example the UK’s high personal debt levels are in large part because of very high house prices, and high house prices are a real problem for many reasons. But I do want to suggest that the evidence for doom and gloom is not as clearcut as some suggest.
The first, and perhaps most basic, misapprehension is that the financial crisis was the result of UK defaults. It was not. UK banks got into difficulties because of their lending overseas. I discuss this in the context of the so called 2007 boom here. In particular I note that, as the Bank’s Ben Broadbent points out, in the Great Recession UK “losses on most domestic loans have actually been unexceptional. Instead, it is UK banks’ substantial overseas assets that caused much of the damage.” Northern Rock failed because its business model, which relied on it obtaining funds from the wholesale market, failed. Of course for UK banks, this misapprehension that the financial crisis was a result of foolish UK borrowers rather than their lending behaviour may be rather convenient.
A second common trait is to quote numbers for debt in nominal terms. Like cinema box office receipts, we are always breaking records. It is a classic example of the kind of bad practice I note here. This chart, from the Bank of England’s latest inflation report, shows the ratio of average household debt to income.
It is certainly true that this rose substantially in the years before the financial crisis. A good deal, but not all, of that is down to rising UK house prices, which means there are assets behind that debt. That is a concern, as I have already noted, but as I have also noted it did not cause the UK financial crisis. We are a long way from those peak levels, and this chart shows that the household sector as a whole has not gone on a borrowing binge over the last year or two.
This has a political dimension. It would be foolish for those on the left to predict that Osborne’s recovery was bound to fail by 2020. It might, but if I had to put my money on any outcome it would be more optimistic. The small number who suggested in 2012/13 that UK recovery would never come with Osborne’s fiscal regime were used to discredit all those who were against austerity. It would be far better to focus relentlessly on housing, and how a whole generation are being denied the possibility of home ownership without helpful and wealthy parents.