Osborne’s raid on UK households

Matthew Pitt reports on the latest economic blunder from chancellor George Osborne.


Shortly before becoming the country’s chancellor, George Osborne declared in a speech themed: ‘A new economic model’ that private debt, both in the banking and household sector, was “the cause of this crisis” and pledged that under his watch it will become sustainable.

Enter last week’s independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) disturbing and worrying economic forecasts that many other independent bodies still found overly optimistic.

However, move beyond the headline figures and you will find the OBR’s household debt forecast buried beneath a horde of economic and fiscal information – and it is in stark contradiction to the chancellor’s promise of private debt sustainability (to view table, click on the first link under ‘Supplementary Data’ and view tab 1.8).

In short, the OBR expects the household debt to rise from £1.56 trillion in 2010 to a staggering £2.13tr in 2015, marking a 36.3 per cent rise in the matter of five years.

In other words, instead of debt representing 160 per cent of household income last year, the debt-to-income ratio (typically used by economists to measure the extent of the debt burden) will eventually reach 175 per cent.

If we look at other examples in which countries cut back on public spending, the Canadian fiscal cuts in the 1990s for example show how household debt has an inverse relationship with government borrowing. Meaning that if a government cuts back on its spending, households typically have to borrow more to make up for the shortfall in income caused by the drop in benefits and a rise in taxes.

It is therefore to be expected that under Labour, household debt would have although risen, albeit by far less due to far less severe spending withdrawals. This is signified by the OBR predicting prior to the conservatives’ “too far, too fast” cuts that household debt would increase to £1.72tr in 2014. Fast forward to last week and the OBR now predicts that this figure has risen by £245bn to a total of £1.96tr.

Due to the Tory-led government’s overzealous cuts, UK households will now suffer an additional debt burden of almost a quarter of a trillion pounds.

Asked by Chuka Umunna in the Treasury Select Committee last week on whether he is transferring public debt to private debt, Osborne dodged the question by stating that it is “all our debt”. The out-of-touch chancellor is put in a more awkward position if one considers at what cost the rise in household debt comes: after considering the policies of the chancellor in both, last and this year, the OBR expected public sector net debt to fall only by £43bn in 2013/14 as a result.

Osborne’s tactic of moving the debt burden from the public sector to households is unsustainable and its extent utterly unfair. Households have no other choice than to borrow with such deep changes in benefits and taxes, but the government does and it therefore needs to consider that whilst it is expected to reduce public debt by £43bn, household debt is estimated to rise by £245bn – more than five times as much.

Sustainability of private debt, which was the cause of the economic and financial crisis, looks different – unless the Oxford dictionary has changed its definition since the last time I looked.

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