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How sustainable is the UK’s appetite for credit?

The latest Bank of England’s Money and Credit release shows net lending (lending net of repayments) by Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) to individuals in February was £4.9 billion. Although down on the £5.4 billion in January, it nonetheless means that over the last 12 months the flow of net lending amounted to £52.8 billion. This is the highest 12-month figure since October 2008.

The latest credit data raise concerns about levels of lending and their potential to again impact on the financial well-being of individuals, particularly in light of the falling proportion of income that households are saving. As we saw in UK growth fuelled by consumption as households again lose affection for their piggy banks the saving ratio fell to an historic low of 4.2 per cent for 2015.

An important factor affecting the financial well-being of individuals and households is the extent of their indebtedness. Flows of credit accumulate to become stocks of debt. Stocks of debt affect the extent to which household incomes becomes prey to debt servicing costs. Put simply, more and more income, all other things being equal, is needed for interest payments and capital repayments as debt stocks rise. Rising stocks of debt can also affect the ability of people to further fund borrowing, particularly if debt levels grow more quickly than asset values, such as the value of financial assets accumulated through saving. Consequently, the growth of debt can result in households incurring what is called balance sheet congestion with deteriorating financial well-being or increased financial stretch.

Chart 1 shows the stocks of debt acquired by individuals from MFIs, i.e. deposit-taking financial institutions. It shows both secured debt stocks (mortgage debt) and unsecured debt stocks (consumer credit). The scale of debt accumulation, particularly from the mid 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s is stark.

At the start of 1995 UK individuals had debts to MFIs of a little over £430 billion, the equivalent of roughly 55 per cent of annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product). By the autumn of 2008 this had hit £1.39 trillion, the equivalent of roughly 90 per cent of annual GDP. At both points around 85 per cent of the debt was secured debt, though around the start of the decade it had fallen back a little to around 80 per cent. (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. Both financially-distressed individuals and MFIs took steps to repair their balance sheets following the financial crisis. These steps, it is argued, are what resulted in a balance sheet recession. This saw the demand for and supply of additional credit wane. Consequently, as Chart 1 shows debt accumulation largely ceased.

More recently the indebtedness to MFIs of individuals has started to rise again. At the end of February 2014 the stock of debt was just shy of £1.4 trillion. By the end of February 2016 it had risen to £1.47 trillion (a little under 80 per cent of annual GDP). This is an increase of 4.7 per cent. Interestingly, the rise was largely driven by unsecured debt. It rose by 13.4 per cent from £159.4 billion to £180.7 billion. Despite the renewed buoyancy of the housing market, particularly in South East England, the stock of secured debt has risen by just 3.6 per cent from £1.24 trillion to £1.28 trillion.

Chart 2 shows the annual flow of lending extended to individuals, net of repayments. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 2.) The chart provides evidence of cycles both in secured lending and in consumer credit (unsecured lending).

The growth in net lending during the 2000s was stark as was the subsequent squeeze on lending that followed. During 2004, for example, annual net flows of lending from MFIs to individuals exceeded £130 billion, the equivalent of close on 10.5 per cent of annual GDP. Secured lending was buoyed by strong house price growth with UK house price inflation rising above 14 per cent. Nonetheless, consumer credit was very strong too equivalent to 1.8 per cent of GDP.

Net lending collapsed following the financial crisis. In the 12 months to March 2011 the flow of net lending amounted to just £3.56 billion, a mere 0.2 per cent of annual GDP. Furthermore, net consumer credit was now negative. In other words, repayments were exceeding new sums being extended by MFIs.

Clearly, as Chart 2 shows, we can see that net lending to individuals is again on the rise. As we noted earlier, part of this this reflects a rebound in parts of the UK housing market. It is perhaps worth noting that secured lending helps individuals to purchase housing and thereby acquire physical wealth. While secured lending can find its way to fuelling spending, for example, through the purchase of goods and services when people move into a new home, consumer credit more directly fuels spending and so aggregate demand. Furthermore, consumer credit is not matched on the balance sheets by an asset in the same way that secured credit is.

Chart 3 shows the annual growth rate of both forms of net lending by MFIs. In essence, this mirrors the growth rate in the stocks of debt though changes in the stocks of debt can also be affected by the writing off of debts. What the chart nicely shows is the strong rates of growth in net unsecured lending from MFIs. In fact, it is the strongest annual rate of growth since January 2006 (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in consumer credit, the fall in the saving ratio and the growth in consumer spending point to a need for individuals to be mindful of their financial well-being. What is for sure, is that you can expect to see considerable comment in the months ahead about consumption, credit and income data. Fundamental to these discussions will be the sustainability of current lending patterns.

Articles
Consumer Lending Growth Highest Since 2005 Sky News, (31/3/16)
Britons raid savings to fund spending as economists warn recovery ‘built on sand’ Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (31/3/16)
Household debt binge has no end in sight, says OBR Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (17/3/16)
Surge in borrowing… as savings dwindle: Household savings are at an all-time low as families turn to cheap loans and credit cards Daily Mail, James Burton (1/4/16)
George Osborne banks on household debt time bomb to meet his Budget targets Mirror, Ben Glaze (29/3/16)
Britain’s free market economy isn’t working Guardian (13/1/16)

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

Questions

  1. What does it mean if individuals are financially distressed?
  2. How would we measure the financial well-being of individuals and households?
  3. What actions might individuals take it they are financially distressed? What might the economic consequences be?
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
  5. What measures can policymakers take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
  6. What is meant by a balance sheet recession?
  7. Explain the difference between secured debt and unsecured debt.
  8. Should we be more concerned about the growth of consumer credit than secured debt?
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