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Saving our way out of a vicious cycle

Brits repaid a record 8bn of mortgage debt in Q4 2008, a far cry from the equity withdrawal trend of previous years. In fact, the same period in 2007 saw a net equity withdrawal of 6.7bn – and this was down from the peak in Q4 2003 when we collectively released a massive 17.2bn. That’s a huge turnaround in five years.

But it seems that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t in this regard. The government wants the best of both worlds. On one hand it preaches prudence and saving and on the other it has its head in its hands because we are not spending enough to keep the high street boom going.

When markets were rising and house prices were on their seemingly unending northward march, many consumers were tempted by cheap interest payments and the perception of wealth that the inflation in the value of their properties brought.

This allowed them to release significant sums from their properties for large purchases, fuelling a boom on the high street that fed into the wider economy.

Although this went on for a long time it was ultimately never going to be sustainable. Now, house prices have fallen by more than 20% and may decline further, which means the equity pot many home owners enjoyed and previously tapped into has disappeared.

In uncertain times it seems it is our natural instinct to save and reduce our debt exposure, which must be a good thing.

The utopian situation of a healthy balance between debt and savings is something that has eluded governments for more than a century and there has never appeared to be a simple way of achieving it.

Of course, when Labour came to power it promised to end the boom and bust cycle typified by the previous Tory administration, and for its first term we almost believed it.

But then the economy didn’t so much bust as implode with a mighty roar, leading many to believe that boom and bust is the only way our economy can operate. There is a growing acceptance that every eight years or so we must have a recession.

But there could be a better way. We could be entering a period of austerity, with tighter controls on borrowing and lower levels of liquidity all backed up by the ability to repay debt. This really could bring the boom and bust cycle to an end.

It seems to me that making borrowing harder coupled with stabilising house prices at a realistic level in relation to affordability would be no bad thing.

The economic situation could improve – until some City whiz kid, too young to remember the precipice we fell off in 2007, comes up with a clever new way of making money.

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