If you’re old enough to care about the contents of this article you’re old enough to remember the unnatural disaster that occurred in 2008-2009 commonly known as The Great Recession. That global financial meltdown, driven by an insatiable demand for easy credit, was only prevented from dragging the entire world economy into a black hole from which there would be no return by the unprecedented intervention of the world’s leading central banks. They printed trillions of dollars of new money and injected it into the system to cover bad debt, bail out huge banks and fund government takeovers of other financial institutions. In essence the West borrowed its way out of a debt crisis.
The Sweet Sound of Alarm Bells Peeling O’er the Land
Fast forward less than a decade to 2017 most of us are still not financially independent and you don’t have to strain to hear financial watchdogs once again sounding the credit alarm. Although the nature of the risk may be slightly different this time around (personal debt as opposed to credit default swaps) the tune is the same: we’re borrowing our way toward financial Armageddon.
Take for example household debt in the UK. In March British consumers added £1.6 billion to the good ship Personal Debt, a 10.2% jump over last year’s already bloated numbers. In November 2016 that year on year increase was 10.9%, the highest since 2005 when the housing bubble was in full swing. If this were a new phenomenon it might not seem such a big deal. But coming at a time when the global economy still hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession it has more than a few experts trembling in their wingtips. Here’s why.
The Dangers of Easy Money
In the days leading up to the 2008 meltdown people all over the Western world were gorging on easy money: “No job? No savings? No collateral? No problem! Here’s a million dollars for that dream house of yours. Just be sure you flip it quick – and for a handsome profit – or our next meeting will be at the soup kitchen! Ha ha ha ha.” Of course it didn’t take much to blow over the whole house of cards and expose the fantasy island both lenders and borrowers were living on.
Again, while the problem today is slightly different in nature the dynamics are essentially the same. Consumers, seduced by historically low interest rates, are taking on more debt than they can reasonably be expected to pay back. All it will take to capsize the good ship Personal Debt today is a slight downturn in the economy or a sudden spike in interest rates. If one or both of those things happen millions of households will likely find themselves unable to even make minimum monthly payments and the dominos will begin to fall.
And there are already indications that pressures are mounting on the first few dominos. Staff at the National Debtline for instance report the 1st quarter of 2017 was the worst they’ve experienced since the dark days of 2009. While others are scrambling to find any sign of good news in what is an increasingly bleak debt picture.
The Changing Nature of Debt
Another difference between the nature of today’s credit bubble and that of 2008 is that this one is driven at least in part by consumers borrowing to cover essentials. And that by itself is more than a little frightening because it suggests that, not only have we not recovered from 2008, but we’ve now decided that borrowing is the only way to make up for the shortfall in that recovery. And if that’s true it can’t lead anywhere good.
As proof of this recently released figures indicate that both consumer credit and student loan debt are higher today than they were in the run-up to the 2008 meltdown and that 26% of household spending today is deficit spending. Compare that figure to the British government which relies on borrowing to cover about 15% of current expenditures; a figure many consider outrageous. In fact unsecured debt is now £11,800 per household; the highest it has ever been.
(Bad) Credit Where it’s Due
It has to be said that, while many in the banking sector today are raising red flags over the issue of consumer debt, it’s more than a little disingenuous of them to do so. After all, it’s not consumers who are printing credit cards at a furious pace and offering 0% interest on loans and the like. Only the banks can do that. People are just taking them up on their offer because they don’t see any other way to make ends meet.
On the bright side at least one bank (the Bank of England) has tacitly acknowledged their role in creating the problem by ordering a review of their non-business lending practices. However, while this is a necessary step in the right direction it will have to become the industry norm, and fast, if we’re to head off the new meltdown many see heading our way.
The Way Forward
Obviously one can’t build a sustainable economy on unlimited borrowing. As everyone should have learned in 2008 the debt chickens eventually come home to roost and they all want to be fed. Getting hold of the situation and instituting necessary changes won’t be easy but the alternatives are bleak and bleaker. So what are those necessary changes? Well, at minimum they look like this:
- Wages need to rise.
- Financial institutions have to reign in their lending practices.
- Governments need to hold financial institutions accountable for reckless behaviour.
In spite of the increase in personal debt in March there are a few barely perceptible indications that consumers may be starting to exercise a bit more restraint. However, as of this writing these blips on the horizon have yet to coalesce into a discernible trend. The overall situation remains extremely worrisome and unless things can be turned around fairly soon most every economist worth their salt knows where they’re headed.