Grappling with debt

How many more wake up calls does the government need, before they recognise the seriousness of the UK’s debt situation?

In government circles it is fashionable to dismiss arguments that we need to control the deficit. They believe that spending whatever it takes will prevent or limit the recession. They think they can go on printing money to get them closer to the next election. They say that of course the UK will never default on its debt. All it has to do in their world is print some money so it can meet the debt bills.

There are two ways a country can try to default on its debts. It could stop paying the interest, or literally cancel the bonds. The UK does not do such things, and it is unlikely to start any time soon. The other way is to undermine the currency and the value of the pound, so the money can be repaid in depreciated notes. Some in world markets are now worried that this is exactly what the government will do. There has been a steady stream of overseas sellers of UK government debt, selling it back to the Bank of England as they do the buying.

At a certain point buyers of Uk government debt want a higher rate of interest to justify making a further investment. The government gets itself into a nasty spiral. It is spending too much, so it borrows too much. The amount spent on interest payments goes up, requiring yet more borrowing to pay the interest. The rate at which it has to borrow goes up, again increasing the interest charges and requiring yet more borrowing to pay the interest.

In Opposition Labour used to know this. They rightly pointed out that the then government spent too much on debt interest, and too much on the “costs of economic failure” – welfare benefits for those without jobs. Many people are now very nostalgic for the relatively low levels of debt and the lower costs of welfare of those days. By its own former rhetoric this government has got itself into the wrong situation. Its own budget deficit is now ballooning through too much debt interest and too many people out of work.

They are about to discover that it is easy to get into a vicious circle on debt, but much more difficult to get out. If you borrow £417,000,000,000 gross debt in just two years as they are doing, you have to pay £12,500,000,000 a year in interest at 3%. If you had to borrow that again at 5% the interest bills soars to £20,850,000,000 a year. And that’s just the interest on two year’s borrowings!


  1. Julian
    May 22, 2009

    To make some savings (for example) do we need an Energy Savings Trust, a Carbon Trust and ‘Act on C02’? Maybe one of these could do the job.

    1. Freddy
      May 23, 2009

      Or maybe none of them, given that catastrophic global warming is a scam.

    2. Stuart Fairney
      May 23, 2009

      Maybe none at all could be as effective?

  2. Brigham
    May 22, 2009

    I notice that Britain is rapidly becoming a nation that is no longer regarded as a good risk. I’m afraid I don’t really understand this properly. As an expert John, could you put it into words that a fiscal idiot like myself will understand?

  3. Mark M
    May 22, 2009

    Precisely the reason that personal finance should be taught in our secondary schools. This is the most basic level of such a course. In itself, debt is not a bad thing. People use debt to buy cars and homes. Governments use it to pay for massive infrastructure projects.

    It is when you borrow simply to cover day-to-day costs (as our government is now doing) that things become problematic. If your typical income cannot cover your typical outgoings, then you need to lower your outgoings (you can try to raise your income but that is substantially more difficult). As Americans say, this is Personal Finance 101. Gordon Brown was right when he said we should borrow only to invest – what a shame he has not done as he said.

  4. Simon D
    May 22, 2009

    Good analysis. Now for the solution: we must try and live within our means. No sign of much grown-up debate on this yet. I noticed Mr. Brown shrieking about “Tory cuts” in response to Mr. Cameron at Question Time the other day. Even the BBC wants more of our money.

    Parliament is in a mess. The political and media classes are mesmerised like rabbits in a headlight by the expenses debacle and talk about little else. The headlines in the newspapers and on the BBC should actually be more about our dire economic state and less about moats and duck islands.

    May 22, 2009

    All the more reason to campaign hard for that early-October general election we blogged about after last night’s Question Time and the day before too. We fully agree…there must be URGENCY.
    The electorate are primed.

    By pushing hard for October Mr Cameron will strengthen his argument and completely undermine Labour’s attempts to hang on.
    If Parliament and the government can’t get their acts together in 4 months they don’t deserve our patience or understanding for a day longer.

    It would surely keep our politicians – those re-selected anyway -fully employed this summer instead of embarking on overseas jollies and give us all hope that our politicians are taking this crisis so seriously that they’re prepared to swap Hawaii for the hustings!


  6. oldrightie
    May 22, 2009

    For Brown and his useless Treasury cabal, all this is irrelevant to their own wealth and security. For the rest of us the awful signs are seen in the crippling of giant companies such as M & S and British Airways, with many more to follow. The jobless will reach 4 million before we can see any way out. If you add the other non-working scam figures, over 10 million will be on some form of unemployment benefit before long. This adds yet further to the borrowing, thus to the debt, thus to the interest increases necessary. Hey, even Daily Mirror readers will get the picture and understand the spiral.

  7. oldrightie
    May 22, 2009

    Additionally all this expenses smoke gives good cover to the mess Brown has put us in.

  8. Citizen Responsible
    May 22, 2009

    The “wake up calls” seem loud and clear to everyone except our government. I can’t understand the thinking of Gordon Brown. Not for the first time, I find I am asking myself the question, is he really a communist who has worked towards the destruction of our economy and society? It was Lord Turnbull who said that Gordon Brown when Chancellor, operated the Treasury with “Stalanistic ruthlessness”. We need a General Election ASAP, but he seems determined that if he is going down, he is going to take us all with him. If he had any sense of conscience, shame, responsibility, he would call one now. Will bad results for Labour at the local and European elections in June force him out of office or will that make him determined to hang on to the bitter end?

  9. Brian Tomkinson
    May 22, 2009

    The reason above all why we need a general election. This government has no credibility nor has parliament. In the meantime our economy progresses nearer and nearer to the rocks.

  10. Lola
    May 22, 2009

    This behaviour is outrageous. Gordon Brown is playing a politcal game for his reputation and that of labour with our, our, money. I really cannot express just how incensed I am that a man and his party could be quite so self interested and deceitful as to pull a stunt like this.

  11. Malcolm Edward
    May 22, 2009

    The Labour government are deliberately sabataging our economy. They are nothing short of (outrageous -ed).

  12. Acorn
    May 22, 2009

    Can’t ague with your analysis JR but a bit short on solutions. We will shortly, if no already, reach the point of no return; the damage has been done. We may have an economy that is beyond any short term economic repair.

    The government needs to get back to a balanced budget for a few years, but this will be politically impossible. No political party has the testicular fortitude to cut £175 billion out of the budget. The national debt will never be repaid, we will continually need new debt to pay off the old debt.

    Nadeem (one of the Bullion Boys) sums it up today see following. I am aware that you cut out my links that mention other political parties so keep your eyes closed when you get to that bit. Or, you could post a rebuttal to it such as; What I would do in my first hundred days as Chancellor.

  13. Demetrius
    May 22, 2009

    Dear Zeus, when I sat my children down to talk them as a modern father it was not to tell them stories, it was to try to persuade them of the elementary principles of household finance. One was that if you had to borrow money to pay the interest on loans, then you were too close to being hopelessly in debt, indeed to bankruptcy. Also, if you were often borrowing money from one lender to pay off another, this was a sign of very real danger.

    There are more than enough examples in history to show that the course the government is embarked on will have very nasty consequences, and the first bailiff has already knocked on the door.

  14. alan jutson
    May 22, 2009


    Its almost like the sub prime mortgage “investment scheme”
    We are all aware that, as a borrower:
    The poorer the risk when you borrow, the more interest you pay.

    As a Lender:
    The higher the risk, the more you charge, as the risk is greater.

    The real worry is when the lender then sells on the “investment”
    (which is really a debt) to a third party, or to people who are not made aware that it really is a debt, but who think of it as an investment, and buy such products on that basis.

    Perhaps we will have another miss selling scandel come to light in a few years time. When some Government securities or similar (perhaps not the UK but some other organisation) comes to light.

    Given that huge sums of money can now be transfered anywhere in the world at the touch of a button, perhaps the real problem here is that computers tend to de sensitize the the thought that figures that are being transfered from one computer screen to another, are just thought of as numbers, and not money at all.
    The more you deal with them, the more desensitized you become.

    Not suggesting that we do not use computers, but perhaps just be a little more aware of the scale of what is being traded.

  15. Robin
    May 22, 2009


    Whilst it’s all very well talking about the debt situation the real issue is the lack of transparency, accountablity and real debate in the Commons. It is the real issue because without it you are just whistling in a gale John.

    Until this Parliament can make decisions on the basis of real debates then all that debate achieves is political point scoring in the event of a failure. The Cabinet and No 10 need to become less powerful and mechanisms need to be put into place where whipping is heavily restricted.

    I repeat, John you are just whistling in a gale, you need to direct your efforts into having real debates in a real Parliament. Until then you can put the most comprehensive and competent argument together but it will achieve nothing except point scoring in an election leaflet that goes straight to the recycling bin.

    You and your colleagues need to wake up and smell the coffee.

  16. Frugal Dougal
    May 22, 2009

    The prospect of paying back the debt in devalued currency worries me, because this is how the post-Versailles governments of Germany reacted to the huge sums demanded – printed money; the rest is history.

  17. Stuart Fairney
    May 22, 2009

    £21 Billion interest alone !! Or to put it another way, if you assume Manchester United’s Renaldo could sell for £50 million, then you could buy a complete first team for every side in the premiership entirely of Renaldos, and still have enough money at todays spot price to but 546 tons of gold bullion!!

    Profanity would now be expressed were it not for fear of it being moderated out. Suffice to say, this is the road to hell.

  18. Pete Chown
    May 22, 2009

    ‘They rightly pointed out that the then government spent too much … on the “costs of economic failure” – welfare benefits’

    The number of public sector jobs created by Labour was greater than the fall in the number of unemployment benefit claimants, even before benefit claims started rising again. This makes me wonder if some unemployed people were just moved into unproductive government jobs, rather than being given the skills necessary to succeed in the private sector.

    This would have made the unemployment figures look better, without the need to tackle the very difficult issues that actually give rise to long term unemployment.

  19. michael mcgrath
    May 22, 2009

    Edmund Conway, in today’s Telegraph, comments that “Britain faces having it’s top-tier credit rating downgraded for the first time in 30 years”

    30 years ago, at the death of another failed Labour period of office, we had the Winter of Discontent, bodies unburied etc etc etc and it took a Conservative government and the strength and clarity of purpose of Margaret Thatcher to pull us out of the mire.

    Unfortunately, this time the situation appears not only worse than last time but is also deteriorating even more on a daily basis while the principal architect of the shambles dithers in Downing Street

    I believe that every day counts. What can you and the other rational Members do to force him out?

  20. Martin Cole
    May 22, 2009

    Indeed so!

    Yet what hope for the country when Philip Hammond is reported as putting the main opposition party’s economic stance for the ever deepening crisis as the following:


  21. Michael, Islington
    May 22, 2009

    You’re best when you take the time to explain things like this.

    The reaction of most punters to Conservatives going about on about rising public spending is “So what?”

    It might not be life and death. It’s much more important.

  22. Mike Stallard
    May 22, 2009

    Now I do understand the transference of newly minted QE money to the tame Bank of England and back again!
    Thank you.

    About cut backs of state expenditure: I have just had a most interesting conversation with an international building manager who, quite rightly, lives in one of the richer parts of our little town. He tells me that one of his neighbours sweeps the floor of a butcher’s for a job. The State, however, when told that he has five children, has kindly provided him with a five bedroomed house in the very same rich part of town. His wages, falling below £16,850 p.a., are considerably supplemented and the children, alongside all their other emoluments, even get a fruit allowance of £5 each a week.

  23. Connor Davies
    May 22, 2009


    Two words:

    Nigel, and Lawson.

    As a fellow Tory, anything you say on the matter is simply hypocrisy.

    If you want to take the position you’re taking, leave the Tory party. Otherwise you just come across as someone with amnesia.

    1. Freddy
      May 23, 2009

      I don’t understadn your point. Could you clarify, please ?

  24. sm
    May 22, 2009

    Yes this is a needed warning, likely to be unheeded.

    We need import reducing strategies, and in also to reducing volatiltiy of pricing of basic commodities for users. Where else does funny money go, but chase the fast buck. (Sometimes with beneficial effects in more stable enviroment)

    Suggestions include:
    Extra mandatory gas storage.Serious insulation/efficiency requirements funded by the energy companies for carbon credits.

    Target any labour intensive import reducing industry for help, particularly if it has multiplier effects for the UK. It must be investment though not disguised subsidy. e.g.

    Bridge building, use of natural tidal,wave,wind resource & nuclear if we can get them built quickly enough. A much better connected smarter grid system. Something we can morally spend future taxpayers money on.

    At the same time redirect the funds from non-essential non import reducing areas. e.g. EU funding to MP numbers and claims.

  25. Adam Collyer
    May 22, 2009

    Too right.

    And to put that in context, £12.5 billion is more than the government spends on Child Benefit; £20.85 billion is more than the government spends on Transport (including roads, railways and buses) and the difference (£8 billion) is about what the government spends on the Foreign Office and DEFRA combined.

    Overall, even BEFORE all this two-year spending spree, for year 2007/8 the government spent about the same on debt interest as on tax credits and child benefit combined.

    On your figures, Mr Redwood, even at £12.5 billion, the additional interest will take the figure for debt interest payments above what the government spends on schools!!!

  26. Johnny Norfolk
    May 22, 2009

    Labout just never learn. The day of reconing is nearer than they think and the sooner the better.

    1. Freddy
      May 23, 2009

      Unfortunately, neither do the voters.

  27. A. Sedgwick
    May 22, 2009

    So called quantitive easing is possibly the biggest con of New Labour and at some point it will come back and bite. Investors in UK Plc can see the risks in their investment when the Bank of England creates money to “buy” gilts. Conversely if we had a sane program of state cuts which did not penalise the hard working, the genuinely sick, the genuinely disabled, genuine asylum seekers and anyone genuinely looking for work the financial world would be more relaxed at the plight caused by 12 years of reckless government.

  28. Bryan
    May 22, 2009

    Thanks for the clear explanation and simple examples.

  29. Adrian Peirson
    May 22, 2009

    We Borrowed worthless paper from the BofE… cost them about 1p to print a £50 note.
    We should judt print off, £1Million and give it to the shareholders and say there you go, debt paid off.
    from now on, we will coin our own money thank you very much.

  30. Denis Cooper
    May 22, 2009

    For the record, this week’s turn of the money-go-round:

    Existing gilts purchased by Bank of England using newly created money:

    Monday, £3.5 billion, cover ratio 3.17:

    Wednesday, £3.0 billion, cover ratio 3.52:

    Existing gilts bought up this week, £6.5 billion, bringing aggregate to £64 billion.

    New gilts issued by Debt Management Office to fund budget deficit:

    Tuesday, £1.25 billion, cover ratio 2.02:

    Thursday, £5.0 billion, cover ratio 2.60:

    New gilts issued this week, transferring newly created money to Treasury, £6.25 billion.

    A chart here:

    shows that the plan is to sell £220 billion of new gilts during this financial year, and so far sales have reached £32 billion.

  31. Jim Pearson
    May 22, 2009

    Ominous, and depressing reading. Those figures are a damn disgrace. God help the next government. I think Gordon Brown is going to turn the country into one big welfare state. It pains me to see such ruin brought on my childrens futures. Roll on the election, it can’t come quick enough.

  32. Socrates
    May 22, 2009

    When times are tight, it is important to make sure that every penny spent gets the best value.
    The real problem with this government is that they have no commercial experience.
    When confronted with questions like what have you done to improve the NHS/Education/Security/Defence? all you get is a detailed exposition of how many billions have been spent more than the Conservatives.
    I can’t think of any business where managers would get promoted based on how vast their expenditure was rather than the results they achieved.
    The problems of our economy won’t be solved by throwing money around like confetti but by sound and, dare I say, prudent spending.
    It is time for these squanderers to go. It is time for an election but Gordon won’t get his ego off the power trip (etc-ed). Maybe the Queen will give him a hint!

  33. jean baker
    May 22, 2009

    Dear John,

    Many believe the true aim behind Nulabor’s ‘spinning’ rhetoric is it’s onward march to “socialist totalitarianism”. To this end, the cost to taxpayers would undoubtedly be deemed irrelevant. Growth in Labour appointed ‘box tickers and ‘yes men’ continues to escalate along with insane levels of debt.

  34. Mark
    May 22, 2009

    I checked out the latest quarterly report at the DMO. It shows the total nominal gilts outstanding (inflation adjusted on IL) to be £713.2 bn as at 31 March 2009. Overseas holdings were £216.4 bn at 31 December 2008 (no later data published). Devaluation of these holdings by say 25% therefore saves around £54 bn plus coupon payments in forex on a mark to market basis. Overseas holdings have grown dramatically over the past few years – they were only a little over £50 bn as recently as Q3 2003. The increase is largely involuntary – the corollary of a BoP deficit on combined current and capital account that used to be known as “official financing”. Under the gold standard it would represent gold that had to be transferred to foreign central banks.

    If currency devaluation is not competed away in beggar-my-neighbour fashion then the BoP can be expected to deteriorate sharply as expensive imports consume foreign currency long before export order volumes increase sufficiently to compensate. That may increase involuntary funding required. Indeed, it is highly questionable whether exports will be responsive to devaluation: skilled manpower providing services may simply export itself, and financial services are in a state of collapse while industry is now a minor player. Capital inflows remain limited because commercial and residential property is still grossly overvalued: even cross border M&A can’t pull in significant sums with depressed stock markets and non availability of highly geared financing.

    Meantime, the reality is that the BoE is fast becoming the government’s super SIV, buying the issued gilts and swallowing overvalued toxic assets from the banking sector. This means that the government deficit is effectively not being financed at all, since neither domestic nor foreign entities are actually lending it a brass farthing (well, apart from those pension funds forced by regulation to indulge in loss making investments in gilts). Finding real funding for the principal, never mind the coupon, will be a nasty shock at some point. Essentially the government is indulging in fraud unless they already have an humungous loan set up from the IMF that they can draw down.

    I hope you are developing some plans that recognise these realities.

  35. james harries
    May 22, 2009

    It is indeed easy to get into a viscuous circle of debt. (Please, the OED, give Redwood the credit for this brilliant conflation of viscous and vicious!) but the amazing thing is how easy it is to get out of it.
    After all, it only took us thirty or forty years, a bit of inflation and several devaluations to get out of the last viscuous tar pit. (and we did pay it back in our own currency)

    We worry about the UK’s AAA rating with Standard & Poors. )who they?) Next day, they threaten to downgrade the dollar as well. Some salesman (sorry, vice president of Goldman Sachs) predicts the chinese currency will supplant the dollar, despite having a) no futures market b) no commonly agreed name c) no legitimacy d) no wide public acceptance, etc.

    The situation is disastrous but not critical. After we’ve sorted the MPs, we’ll start on the bureaucrats.

  36. adam
    May 23, 2009

    i see (some in Ireland-ed) has been raping little boys and covering it up for sixty years.


    This destruction of our economy is just another symptom of the cancer
    This country is now in self destruct. Full scale internal war has been declared on it
    I dont understand what is going on anymore. Does failure on exams now equal success. Does destroying a business now equal achievement and reward.
    Politicians are at full scale war on my democracy and freedom and property.
    Seems the conspiracy theorists have always been right

    1. adam
      May 24, 2009

      The Irish government covered it up and the Euphile government continue to cover it up, refusing the victims entry to the meeting, refusing to prosecute anyone, laughing in they face of those they allowed to be raped. The society for the protection of children ‘lost’ their documents
      The BBC will pretty much brandish the Tories nazi just for pulling out of the EPP.

  37. Denis Cooper
    May 23, 2009

    Without minimising the problems we’ll face repaying this excessive level of debt, it should be recognised that not all of the interest payments should be seen as money down the drain. Pension funds own gilts – they have to – and part of the interest paid by the government is being used to pay pensions. Go to the other extreme, where the government no longer had no debt at all, and there’d have to be radical re-think about how those beyond working age could have a guaranteed private income.

  38. Ian Jones
    May 23, 2009

    Other countries are in a worse position Government debt wise but they are supported by the savings of their citizens so in fact their debt to savings match. Examples are Japan and Italy. Unfortunately the UK economy is based on the US model of personal consumption, therefore either the Govt saves or the people save, they both cant run up debts.

    Interest rates on gilts quickly rising now even though the BoE is doing its best to buy the gilts and push up their price. Expectations of future inflation are now starting to overcome the BoE purchases, such that when the purchases stop and even reverse, interest rates will accelerate upwards. Its nothing but a policy to try to keep Labour in power.

  39. Peter
    May 24, 2009

    A farmer friend of mine told me something quite interesting the other day. Farmers generally make a monthly VAT return, rather than a quarterly return. This is because their outputs, the crops that they sell are zero rated for VAT purposes, whilst their inputs, fertiliser, sprays etc are subject to VAT. Normally therefore they receive a repayment of VAT, and so it makes sense from a cashflow view point to submit a monthly VAT return.

    In happier days, a return submitted at the end of the month would result in a repayment of VAT by the middle of the month following. Not any more. Now there can be a wait of two to three months before the repayment is made.

    My experience is that one of the first signs of a company running into trouble is the lengthening of the timescale before suppliers are paid.

    Whilst the anecdote above is not of course in any way important, I wonder if it is indicative of an altogether more sinister trend.

  40. Michael
    May 25, 2009

    This is a good start but it would be even more useful to have JR’s thoughts on the limits at which gilt-selling might become problematic for the Treasury, rather than a generalised warning that it could happen “at a certain point”. It would also be be useful if JR could provide some context on how the UK’s fiscal position compares to other major borrowers. In terms of annual deficit vs GDP it’s undeniably bad but in terms of accumulated debt vs GDP

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