National Statistics (ONS) say our external liabilities were £6.7 trillion in Q2 – 461% of our annualized GDP. The UK is presented in a number of horror headlines as ‘the world’s biggest debtor. Given most of us see debt as owing someone else and as a bad thing, all the financial services debt tends to be seen as a very bad thing. This neglects that there are two columns to consider – debt and assets. UK overseas assets are also big. They‘re £6.4 trillion. So our net overseas liabilities are just £309.4bn, 21.2% of annualized GDP. This itself largely a reflection of the fact that we’ve been running small current account deficits for ever and a day.
Our huge gross assets and liabilities, to a large extent, reflect the UK’s position as a financial centre and much of the debt-asset combination is actually held by foreign banks operating in the UK.
If a UK bank swaps a loan with a French one, UK assets and liabilities vis-à-vis France both rise by the same amount. The UK does more of this sort of thing than other countries, so our overseas assets and liabilities are disproportionately big relative to other countries. We may have some severe problems if we’ve been doing dodgy swaps with Greeks, but if due diligence has been observed this won’t be the case.
In Q2 we actually had a small surplus (£3.4bn) on net investment income, as our assets yielded more than our liabilities. This excludes capital gains or losses, but is what you’d expect from prudent investment. After all, a business borrows money and incurs debt in order to make a profit – the idea is to make profit faster than you spend on costs.
Our big overseas assets and liabilities are just what we need if we haven’t just been buying pigs in pokes. As sterling falls it’s a good idea to have foreign assets, though I guess our foreign currency assets are largely matched by foreign currency borrowing.
There are many questions on whether our financial wizards are keeping honest books and any of the assets are worth more than a ton of Max Keiser‘s goat poo, but in principle this aspect of UK debt does not turn us into the world’s largest debtor and could actually be healthy unless the assets it bought turn out to be high yield, delta-hedged Greek honesty bonds or securitisation of sub-prime mortgages in Gary Indiana. The question is whether the money was borrowed and pissed up the wall (in bankster bonuses), or used to buy investments that will pay an income or appreciate. You’d think some overpaid BBC BimboJourno would be able to tell us.
The UK has been buying a lot of US paper of late (along with the other major international debtor Japan). It may be that all this debt is part of a giant Ponzi scheme and that all will go tits up if some parties stop doing the trades (China and Russia are pulling the plug on US paper). I can’t tell and the standard analysis, still absent from BBC Bimbo levels of reporting, is as above. Nothing to worry about if the money has been used to buy real stuff or in honest trades. After all, if you owe a few million, invested in houses and the rents pay the mortgages and give you a net income, life is sweet. If you pissed it away on tonsil lubricant down the local or bet on a donkey in The Derby, it ain’t. The latter would be the case if this UK financial sector overseas debt is floating on Greek credit derivative swaps. Some hedge fund may well be betting this is the case. If banks weren’t allowed so much secrecy I could tell you. If I was a BBC journalist, I’d be making enquiries – but then who’d want to be that git Robert Peston? I’d place a bet on him being next in line for Royal toadying. Given our useless media, we’ll have to wait for the umpteenth Greek bailout to fail to know just what UK and foreign banks here have been buying. I already have a bet on that failure!
In the meantime, we need to remember that debt is an investment and working out what to invest in instead of the doomed austerity project. Crap like Facebook and business models based on advertising revenue won’t do and nor will financial services that need bubbles and asset inflation. I’d go for an investment in our young and unemployed people giving them all three years international service administered by our universities and hopefully partnered across the EU and USA. I’d put this on a war footing without a war. And I’d make the rich pay by investing in the project. The real problem with debt is we’ve been investing in the wrong things. Money shouldn’t be allowed to make money and income should either be earned through work or invested in developing people rather than riches for a few. Debt should be a matter of honour and gratitude for that investment, not debt peonage to the rich. And what would be better than the entrepreneurial, creative private sector doing this public good instead of flooding us with plastic crap from China and horning in on those parts of the public sector already run better by the State?