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Gloomy prospects for UK consumer spending in 2012?

A key determinant of our economy’s rate of growth over the year ahead is likely to be the behaviour of households and, in particular, the rate of growth in consumer (or household) spending. In other words, your appetite for spending will help to determine how quickly the economy grows. The importance of household spending for the economy is straightforward to understand given that it accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total demand for firms’ goods and services, i.e. two-thirds of aggregate demand. In its November 2011 Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Office for Budget Responsibility presents it forecasts for economic growth and household spending. The following table summarises these forecasts.

OBR Forecasts (annual real percentage change)

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
GDP 0.9 0.7 2.1 2.7 3.0 3.0
Consumption –1.1 0.2 1.2 2.2 2.7 2.9
Disposable income –2.3 –0.3 0.9 2.0 2.5 2.5

Source: Economic and Fiscal Outlook (Table 3.6) (Office for Budget Responsibility)

The OBR are forecasting that household spending will fall in real terms in 2011 by 1.1 per cent and grow by only 0.2 per cent in 2012. This is not good news for retailers nor, of course, for the economy. The drag on consumer spending growth is largely attributed to expected falls in real disposable (after-tax) incomes in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the household sector’s real income is forecast to decline by 2.3 per cent and then by a further 0.3 per cent in 2012.

The OBR’s figures on spending growth critically depend on the ability of households to absorb the negative shock to their real income. Empirical evidence tends to show that household spending growth is less variable than that in income and that households try and smooth, if they can, their spending. This means that the marginal propensity of households to consume out of changes to their income is below 1 in the short-run. In fact, the shorter the period of time over which we analyse income and consumption changes the smaller the consumption responses become. This is consistent with the idea that households are consumption-smoothers disliking excessively volatile spending patterns. In other words, the size of our monthly shop will usually vary less than any changes in our real income.

Of course, consumption-smoothing cannot be taken for granted. Households need the means to be able to smooth their spending given volatile and, in the current context, declining real incomes. Some economic theorists point to the importance of the financial system in enabling households to smooth their spending. In effect, households move their resources across time so that their current spending is not constrained solely by the income available to them in the current time period. This could mean in the face of falling real income perhaps borrowing against future incomes (moving forward in time expected incomes) or drawing down past savings.

The ability of households to move future incomes forward to the present has probably been impaired by the financial crisis. Banks are inevitably less cautious in their lending and therefore households are unable to borrow as much and so consume large amounts of future income today. In other words, households are credit-constrained. Furthermore, it is likely that households are somewhat uneasy about borrowing in the current climate, certainly any substantial amounts. Uncertainty tends to increase the stock of net worth a household would like to hold. A household’s net worth is the value of its stock of physical assets (largely housing wealth) and financial assets (savings) less its financial liabilities (debt). If households feel the need for a larger buffer stock of wealth to act as a sort of security blanket, they will not rush to acquire more debt (even if they could) or to draw down their savings.

The impairment of the financial system and the need for a buffer stock are two impediments to households smoothing their spending. They tend to make consumption more sensitive to income changes and so with falling incomes make it more likely that consumption will fall too. There are other related concerns too about the ability and willingness of consumers to smooth spending. Uncertainty arising from the volatility of the financial markets imposes liquidity constraints because households become less sure about the value of those savings products linked to the performance of equity markets. Consequently, they become less certain about the money (liquidity) that could be raised by cashing-in such products and so are more cautious about spending. Similarly, the falls in house prices have reduced the ability of households to extract housing equity to support spending. Indeed, with fewer transactions in the housing market the household sector is extracting less housing equity because it has been quite common, at least in the past, for households to over-borrow when moving and use the excess money borrowed to fund spending.

In short, there are many reasons to be cautious about the prospects for household spending. The expected decline in real income again in 2012 will ‘hit’ consumer spending. The question is how big this ‘hit’ will be and crucially on the extent to which households will be able to absorb it and keep spending.

Articles
Household spending frozen says ONS report BBC News (29/11/11)
Families £13 a week worse off Telegraph (10/12/11)
Household spending power shrinks for 22nd month in a row Mirror, Clifton Manning (29/11/11)
Britons inject record £9 bn of housing equity in Q2 BBC News (30/11/11)
UK retail growth weakest since May, says BRC BBC News (6/12/11)

Data
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England

Questions

  1. What do you understand by a consumption function? What variables would you include in such a function?
  2. Using the figures in the table in the text above, calculate ‘rough’ estimates of the income elasticity of consumption for each year. Why are these estimates only ‘rough’ approximations of the income elasticity of consumer spending?
  3. Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect the strength of consumer spending in 2012. Explain how similar or different these factors are likely to have been to those that may affect spending during periods of strong economic growth.
  4. Explain what you understand by the term consumption-smoothing. Explore how households can smooth their spending and the factors that are likely to both help and prevent them from doing so.
  5. What do you understand by the net worth of housholds? Try drawing up a list of factors that could affect the net worth of households and then analyse how they might affect consumer spending.
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