Britain Grapples With Debt of Greek Proportions

5 Mar

From the New York Times:

Suddenly, investors are asking if Britain may soon face its own sovereign debt crisis if the government fails to slash its growing budget deficits quickly enough to escape the contagious fears of financial markets.

“If you really want a fiscal problem, look at the U.K.,” said Mark Schofield, a fixed-income strategist at Citigroup. “In Europe, the average deficit is about 6 percent of G.D.P. and in the U.K. it’s 12 percent. It is only just beginning.”

Since the Labour government’s intense fiscal intervention in 2008 and 2009, yields on British government debt have soared to among the highest in Europe. And on a broader scale, which includes the borrowing of households and companies, the overall level of debt in Britain is the second-largest in the world, after Japan’s, at 380 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to a recent report by the consulting company McKinsey.

Britain is not in the 16-nation euro zone and, unlike Greece and other struggling countries that use the currency, it retains control over its monetary policy. As a result, it has benefited so far from a huge bond-buying program undertaken by the Bank of England — proportionally, the largest in the world — that has kept mortgage rates and gilt yields at unusually low levels.

That means the government and its citizens have been able to continue to borrow at interest rates that do not reflect their true financial situation.

Indeed, the increase in private and government debt here contrasts sharply with the deleveraging that has been going on in the United States.

British household debt is now 170 percent of overall annual income, compared with 130 percent in the United States. In an echo of the United States’ rush into subprime mortgages with low teaser rates, millions of homeowners in Britain have piled into variable-rate mortgages that are linked to the rock-bottom base rate.

As for the British government, it has been able to finance a budget deficit of 12.5 percent of G.D.P. — equal to Greece’s — at an interest rate more than two full percentage points lower only because the Bank of England bought the majority of the bonds it issued last year.

Sound familiar?

In Australia, household debt is over 150 per cent of income. And in an echo of the British rush into US-style sub-prime mortgages with low teaser rates, some 250,000 homeowners in Australia have piled into variable-rate mortgages that are linked to the rock-bottom base rate, until recently the lowest in 50 years. Many highly ‘marginal’ borrowers who could not previously even raise a deposit, were lured into mortgage debt by the Rudd Government’s First Home Owners Boost, plus additional state-based grants.

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