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Acquiring a taste for credit (again)

The Bank of England’s Money and Credit release on 1 Feb provides us with data up to the end of 2015 on lending by banks and building societies to the rest of the UK private sector. In this post we update our blog of 17 December 2015 – is Minsky right yet again? – to analyse the latest data on lending. The headline numbers show that the flow of lending (net of repayments) by banks and building societies to UK households in 2015 was £40.8 billion up from £29.9 billion in 2014 taking their amount of outstanding lending to households to £1.26 trillion. Was American economist Minsky (1919-1996) right to have argued that cycles in credit are inevitable?

Chart 1 shows the stocks of debt acquired by both households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions), i.e. deposit-taking institutions. The scale of debt accumulation in the late 1980s and again from the mid 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s is stark. At the start of 1980 the UK household sector had debts to MFIs of around £53 billion. By the start of 2009 this had hit £1.29 trillion. To put these figures into context this corresponds to an increase in indebtedness to MFIs from 25 per cent of GDP to 86 per cent of GDP.

The chart also shows the increase in indebtedness of private non-financial corporations which are effectively every day businesses. They saw their debts to MFIs rise from around £25 billion to over £500 billion which is equivalent to an increase from 12 per cent of GDP to 33 per cent of GDP. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 1.)

The path of debt at the start of the 2010s is consistent with a story of consolidation. Although the term is readily used in the context of the public sector and measures to reduce public-sector deficits the term is also relevant for the private sector. Financially-distressed households, private non-financial corporations and MFIs took steps to repair their balance sheets following the financial crisis. Indeed the term is synonymous with the idea of a balance sheet recession which some economists argue describe the late 2000s. The result was that the demand for and supply of additional credit waned. Debt accumulation largely ceased and, as we can see from Chart 1, debt numbers fell.

More recently the indebtedness to MFIs of households has started to edge up again, though, as yet, not for private non-financial corporations. From the end of the first quarter of 2013 to the end of 2015 household indebtedness to MFIs has increased by 7 per cent to £1.26 trillion.

Chart 2 focuses on flows rather than stocks. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 2.) It allows us to see the accumulation of new credit (i.e. less repayments of debt). What is even more apparent from this chart is the evidence of cycles in credit. The growth in new credit during the 2000s is stark as is the subsequent squeeze on credit that followed. Across 2006 net flows of credit from MFIs to households reached £106 billion while the peak for PNFCs was across 2007 when they reached £71 billion. Subsequently, net credit numbers crashed with negative numbers for PNFCs indicating net repayments to MFIs.

The size of the credit flows emanating from MFIs and the magnitude of the resulting credit cycles is even more stark when presented as percentages of GDP. The annual flow of credit to households in the late 1980s reached 9.4 per cent of GDP while that to PNFCs peaked at the end of the decade at 5.2 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, across 2006 net credit to households reached 7.5 per cent of GDP while the peak of lending to PNFCs was in the 12-month period to the end of 2007 Q1 equivalent to 4.8 per cent of GDP. In 2015, credit from MFIs to households reached 2.2 per cent of GDP while that to PNFCs was a mere 0.2 per cent of GDP.

Of course, the key question now is the path of credit. Clearly flows of credit to households are again on the rise. In part, this is driven by the rebound in the UK housing market. But, significantly there has been a significant rise in flows of consumer credit, i.e. unsecured debt.

Chart 3 shows the flows of consumer credit to individuals (excluding student loans involving the Student Loans Company) from MFIs and other credit providers. Again, we see the marked evidence of cycles. Across 2015 these net consumer credit flows amounted to £14.5 billion, the highest annual figure since 2005. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

To put the current rise in consumer credit into context, the net flow of consumer credit to individuals as percentage of GDP across 2015 as a whole amounts to about 0.8 per cent of GDP. This is the highest figure since the second half of 2006. While it might be a little early to say that credit numbers are a cause for concern, they do need to be seen in the context of a still relatively highly indebted household sector. Policymakers will be keeping a keen eye on credit patterns and assessing whether we have again acquired a real appetite for credit.

Households put another £4.4 billion on credit cards and personal loans in December as debt rises at fastest pace in a decade, Rachel Rickard Straus (1/2/16)
One in four ‘living for the day’ as 700,000 more expected to default on debt Independent, Simon Read (2/1/16)
Surprise mortgage jump confounds expectations Independent, Russell Lynch (1/2/16)
U.K. consumer credit slows; mortgage approvals up MarketWatch, Jon Sindreu (1/2/16)
Family debt continues to rise – report BBC News (13/1/16)

Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England


  1. How can the financial system affect the economy’s business cycle?
  2. What does it mean if households or firms are financially distressed? What responses might they take to this distress and what might the economic consequences be?
  3. How would you measure the net worth (or wealth) of an individual or a firm? What factors might affect their net worth?
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households and businesses?
  5. What does it mean if bank lending is pro-cyclical?
  6. Why might lending be pro-cyclical?
  7. Are there measures that policymakers can take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
  8. What do you understand by a consolidation by the private sector? Discuss the possible macroeconomic effects of such a consolidation.
  9. What is meant by a balance sheet recession?
  10. How might the effect of attempts by a large number of individuals to improve their financial well-being differ from those when only a small numbers of individuals do so?
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