For the first time, Britons' personal debt exceeds Britain's GDP

Another worrying milestone on a nation's journey deeper into debt
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The Independent Online

Britons have racked up so much debt on loans and credit cards that the total borrowed now exceeds the entire value of the economy, new research shows today. The financial consultant Grant Thornton is forecasting that gross domestic product (GDP) will hit £1.33 trillion this year, less than the £1.35trn which was outstanding on mortgages, credit cards and personal loans in June.

The symbolic overtaking is the first time that the country's 60 million people owe more to the banks than the value of everything made by every office and factory in the country. It prompted a warning that personal borrowing was so out of control that many more people would be pushed over the "financial edge". The runaway housing market is the biggest reason why consumer debt has spiralled, totalling £1.131trn. Debt on personal loans and credit cards totals £214bn. Overall, individuals owe the staggering sum of £1,344,721,000,000.

Grant Thornton ascribed the level of borrowings to a "buy now, pay later" culture and warned that interest rate rises could impose a significant burden on families and individuals. "Fortunately, most consumer debt is secured and can be repaid over several years otherwise we would be technically bankrupt," its chief economist, Stephen Gifford, said.

The research further darkens the storm clouds gathering over the British economy. Repossessions, personal insolvencies and debt judgments have all risen by about a third in the past year as borrowers have struggled to cope with the impact of five rate rises in a year.

Yesterday the financial website moneyexpert.com suggested that 2.5 million people were "very concerned" about their personal financial situation.

In the United States, the sudden failure of the poor to repay home loans in recent months has sparked a "sub-prime" crisis that has spooked the financial markets and wiped billions of pounds off share prices.

Responding to the latest figures, the Bank of England predicted debts would remain a "social" rather than an "economic" problem, indicating it believes indebtedness will be contained to individuals rather than threaten businesses.

Grant Thornton's notional payback date for personal debt has advanced markedly through the calendar during the past 10 years. In 1997 the UK took until 23 August to pay off its debt, but this year the date will be 5 January the following year, 2008.

Mark Allen, a personal insolvency partner, said it was not uncommon to encounter individuals with debts of £50,000 spread across five credit cards on top of a mortgage. "In our experience these are the sort of people walking a perilous financial tightrope," he said. "All it takes is an increase in costs or, as is the present case, a rise in mortgage premiums due to higher interest rates, to force people to default on their repayments - hence the increase in bankruptcies and individual voluntary arrangements."

Repossession leapt 30 per cent in the first six months of this year compared with the first half of last year. County court judgments rose 32. 5 per cent and personal insolvencies in England and Wales 33 per cent to more than 62,000 last year.

Mortgage payments are making ever-larger dents in household income, rising from 12.5 per cent in 1997 to 17.6 per cent in May this year. Datamonitor, the independent financial analyst, warned this week that the total number of Britons credit blacklisted by 2011 will jump by 20 per cent to 8.6 million.

Moneyexpert.com suggested in its survey that 7 per cent of adults were "very concerned" about their ability to keep on top of their debts, which would amount to 2.5 million adults. However, 40 per cent of the 2,000 respondents were unconcerned about their ability to manage their borrowings.

Malcolm Hurlston, the chairman of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, said Grant Thornton's research made a symbolic point. "Basically speaking, it's just a mathematical question: the relationship between GDP and borrowing. It's really another way of saying that house prices have been going up quicker than wages," he said. "But what is happening is that unsecured debt is less of a problem than it used to be, whereas secured debt is the problem, and I think the Council of Mortgage lenders is expecting the figures for repossessions to get worse."

He added: "The problem on the secured front - mortgages - is getting worse because of the rising gap between house prices and incomes. In terms of volume, it's not going to be as bad as the early 1990s because the mortgage companies are gearing up for it - this time they will be trying to avoid repossessions as much as possible. But there's going to be a lot of activity and a lot of people will find that they can't pay the money back."

Mr Gifford said: "The level of debt has so far not caused much of a problem for the UK economy. Interest rates have been historically low and the UK economy has been ticking along healthily. But with five interest rate rises in the past year the picture is changing and becoming a burden for families and households."

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