Natalie Elphicke OBE is the Chief Executive of The Housing & Finance Institute.
A decade on from the financial crisis we are still feeling the effects. Growth is too low, our economy still too unbalanced and too often different groups in our society are set against each other in arguing over the slices of a cake that simply hasn’t been growing fast enough. It’s time to break free from the long shadow of the financial crisis. The next Government must seize the opportunities to rebuild the enterprise economy and to forge an aspiration nation.
More than a decade ago the financial world as we knew it went into free-fall. Never in recent decades have the global financial markets been more fragile; have so many individual livelihoods and prosperity hung on a thread. I was working in housing finance at the time, as one of the City’s foremost structured finance lawyers for my specialist area; working on complex transactions amounting to many billions of pounds; managing business-to-business relationships with some of our country’s most important banks.
As the financial crash hit it affected every type of finance: credit lines for small business, development finance, mortgage lending, trade finance, project finance and even government debt itself. That translated into housing market instability, business failures and a scarcity of finance that simply hadn’t been seen since before the ‘big bang’ of the 1980s. Trust in the financial system itself was in jeopardy as people scrambled to remove cash from banks and building societies.
It was truly a global crisis, the financial equivalent of multiple meteor strikes. The impact of the financial crash was severe. It has also been long lasting. The decisions taken in the immediacy of the financial crisis continue to impact on our political environment today, more than a decade on. This is true particularly around access to housing choices, mortgages, savings and passive wealth creation that had become as everyday an expectation as free access to the National Health Service. The continuing impact is also felt in a lack of confidence in the very institutions on which we rely –political as well as financial.
The financial crash in technical terms is extraordinarily complex. However, it is also pretty simple. The international economic dependency on cheaper and cheaper finance had created its very own ‘Ponzi’ scheme: a lending magic roundabout where everyone chased the bottom of the barrel while laying off the worst of their lending decisions on to ‘other people’. Not quite realising that the ‘other people’, when the music stopped, were actually each other and themselves. Under-priced riskier finance had been passed and split from one institution to another and back again. It had contaminated the whole money pool.
The political responses and interventions to the financial crash were extraordinarily complex. Yet they too were also pretty simple: the central banks and political leaders of the main financial centres around the world worked together to intervene to stop the dam breaking. They prevented the very worst that should have been the natural economic consequence: a recession that could have been more severe than the 1930s’ American depression. A seismic global recession that could have reversed the economic gains of decades. That could have put Western industrialised countries back into the dark ages on productivity and growth.
Fortunately, these interventions were successful. Plans forged over pizza, the boardroom and in the offices of the central banks from countries all over the world stabilised the financial system. Deals done, crises seen off and yet more crises averted. Panic managed, institutions restructured, nationalised, bought and sold. Keep calm and carry on.
Yet this action has a financial tail, in other words a cost and consequence that continues beyond the crisis. It has a political tail as well, a political cost and consequence that continues to this day. Shortly after the financial crash a young colleague of mine said at least she would be able to afford a house now, with repossessions expected to spike and house prices projected to fall. That didn’t happen. Several years later she bought a partly owned (shared ownership) property on a new estate. House prices had continued to rise, but her wages and savings didn’t keep pace.
That is the legacy problem that politicians face today. In shoring up the dam, those who had something to lose, mainly didn’t lose. At least nowhere near the numbers or the scale that was expected. While those who didn’t have the same extent of financial assets to lose, primarily the poorer and younger generations, lost their opportunity to gain in the way that immediately preceding generations had been able to. The generation before them was able to build up a stock of wealth, whereas too often this generation has built up a stock of debt.
The decision to maintain the status quo, to plug the dam, wasn’t altruistic. The scale of the projected failure could have all but overwhelmed the country’s housing and social systems. Reviews of previous housing crises demonstrated the social and economic futility and destruction in the system of mass repossession, house price collapse and re-homing/ re-jobbing/ re-schooling. But bad debt is like a poison; it needs to work its way out, to wash through the financial system. The long journey over the last decade has been one intended to purge the system, but to do so through a slower and softer landing rather than a sharp and catastrophic one.
However, the cycle of economic shocks has also traditionally brought economic rejuvenation. Avoiding the worst of the shock has meant that the economic rejuvenation has been more muted than might otherwise have been the case. That is a problem that we are still today grappling with, where large parts of our economy remain subject to economic drift.
It is by no means certain that any economy will naturally revert to significant economic growth. Other major G7 economies, such as Japan, have faced long term ‘flatlining’, little or no growth that has persisted over many years. The UK is not quite Japan. Yet it hasn’t seen the energy or the dynamic growth that is necessary to fight in post-war or post-shock years. Neither has it seen the big political decisions to unequivocally support growth and prosperity for all.
That is the big political challenge of today. What we call the ‘inter-generational’ crisis in other times would be recognised as the equivalent of the post Second World War years or 1970s poor years. But unless we experience a 1980s-style period of dynamic growth, the country will simply continue to argue about how to divide the cake. Pitting free TV licences against free access to university; quarrelling over whether to subsidise home ownership or social rent, when we need both; rationing our help to those in need, when we should be a land of more and plenty. What is needed is a Government unashamedly committed to growth and economic expansion in the post-Brexit era.
The new Prime Minister needs to dream a dream for all of us, and then put in place the political measures to make it a reality. The re-birth of the enterprise economy and the aspiration nation. To commit to growth, prosperity and opportunity for all.