Inflation won't spur people to take out big mortgages like it used to

For years home buyers took out big mortgages knowing inflation will ease the burden of repayment. That no longer makes quite the same sense, says Merryn Somerset Webb.


Home buyers can no longer rely on inflation to erode their debt away

I noticed at tweet a few nights ago from Duncan Weldon. It went like this:"Some fretting about UK deflation. Genuine question: in the absence of wage falls how do falling energy/food costs make debt less repayable?"

This is a perfectly good question. After all, the only plausible reason anyone can give for being anti-flat prices or mild deflation is that it is bad for those in debt*. But what does that actually mean?

If prices are flat and your wages are flat, the value of your debt hasn't changed. Nothing is better or worse than it was. You borrowed the money. You have to pay the money back. So it doesn't make debt less repayable in theory.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

What it does do is something rather different. It destroys the rationale a lot of us use when we borrow money in the first place. I've made this point before, but anyone over, say 45, might want to look back to the purchase of their first home.

Did you prudently borrow just as much as you thought you could pay back on a monthly basis while having a little left over to live a happy life? Did you hell. What you actually did was to borrow as much money as was conceivably possible in the happy knowledge that inflation would erode the real value of that debt and make it more or less go away.

A £2,000-a-month mortgage payment isn't going to break the bank after 20years of inflation averaging 6% (the real cost will be down to £500-£600).

So, assuming your wages have kept up with inflation (if you took out your mortgage in your 20s or 30s, they should have wiped the floor with inflation), you are on easy street. Borrow big and inflation will make you rich.

This is something that has long been a universally acknowledged truth in the UK. But what happens if there is no inflation? You can't assume the same fair wind.

And while that doesn't make your debt less repayable in real terms, it makes it much, much more of a long-term burden. And once you understand that (and it doesn't take long for a deflationary mindset to set in ask the Japanese) it also makes you less likely to borrow big again.

That's why deflation matters to a deeply indebted society in a way that it just doesn't to a solvent one. It's all about psychology.

* If you haven't any debt to worry about, falling prices should just raise your standard of living. Hooray.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.