Category: Economics 10e: Ch 18

Consumer credit is borrowing by individuals to finance current expenditure on goods and services. Consumer credit is distinct from lending secured on dwellings (referred to more simply as ‘secured lending’). Consumer credit comprises lending on credit cards, lending through overdraft facilities and other loans and advances, for example those financing the purchase of cars. We consider here recent trends in the flows of consumer credit in the UK and discuss their implications.

Analysing consumer credit data is important because the growth of consumer credit has implications for the financial wellbeing or financial health of individuals and, of course, for financial institutions. As we shall see shortly, the data on consumer credit is consistent with the existence of credit cycles. Cycles in consumer credit have the potential to be not only financially harmful but economically destabilising. After all, consumer credit is lending to finance spending and therefore the amount of lending can have significant effects on aggregate demand and economic activity.

Data on consumer credit are available monthly and so provide an early indication of movements in economic activity. Furthermore, because lending flows are likely to be sensitive to changes in the confidence of both borrowers and lenders, changes in the growth of consumer credit can indicate turning points in the economy and, hence, in the macroeconomic environment.

Chart 1 shows the annual flows of net consumer credit since 2000 – the figures are in £ billions. Net flows are gross flows less repayments. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.) In January 2005 the annual flow of net consumer credit peaked at £23 billion, the equivalent of just over 2.5 per cent of annual disposable income. This helped to fuel spending and by the final quarter of the year, the economy’s annual growth rate had reached 4.8 per cent, significantly about its long-run average of 2.5 per cent.

By 2009 net consumer credit flows had become negative. This meant that repayments were greater than additional flows of credit. It was not until 2012 that the annual flow of net consumer credit was again positive. Yet by November 2016, the annual flow of net consumer credit had rebounded to over £19 billion, the equivalent of just shy of 1.5 per cent of annual disposable income. This was the largest annual flow of consumer credit since September 2005.

Although the strength of consumer credit in 2016 was providing the economy with a timely boost to growth in the immediate aftermath of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, it nonetheless raised concerns about its sustainability. Specifically, given the short amount of time that had elapsed since the financial crisis and the extreme levels of financial distress that had been experienced by many sectors of the economy, how susceptible would people and organisations be to a future economic slowdown and/or rise in interest rates?

The extent to which the economy experiences consumer credit cycles can be seen even more readily by looking at the 12-month growth rate in the net consumer credit. In essence, this mirrors the growth rate in the stock of consumer credit. Chart 2 evidences the double-digit growth rates in net consumer credit lending experienced during the first half of the 2000s. Growth rates then eased but, as the financial crisis unfolded, they plunged sharply. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Yet, as Chart 2 shows, consumer credit growth began to recover quickly from 2013 so that by 2016 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit was again in double figures. In November 2016 the 12-month growth rate of net consumer credit peaked at 10.9 per cent. Thereafter, the growth rate has continually eased. In January 2019 the annual growth rate of net consumer credit had fallen back to 6.5 per cent, the lowest rate since October 2014.

The easing of consumer credit is likely to have been influenced, in part, by the resumption in the growth of real earnings from 2018 (see Getting real with pay). Yet, it is hard to look past the economic uncertainties around Brexit.

Uncertainty tends to cause people to be more cautious. With the heightened uncertainty that has has characterised recent times, it is likely that for many people and businesses prudence has dominated impatience. Therefore, in summary, it appears that prudence is helping to steer borrowing along a downswing in the credit cycle. As it does, it helps to put a further brake on spending and economic growth.

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Growth in the eurozone has slowed. The European Central Bank (ECB) now expects it to be 1.1% this year; in December, it had forecast a rate of 1.7% for 2019. Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, in his press conference, said that ‘the weakening in economic data points to a sizeable moderation in the pace of the economic expansion that will extend into the current year’. Faced with a slowing eurozone economy, the ECB has announced further measures to stimulate economic growth.

First it has indicated that interest rates will not rise until next year at the earliest ‘and in any case for as long as necessary to ensure the continued sustained convergence of inflation to levels that are below, but close to, 2% over the medium term’. The ECB currently expects HIPC inflation to be 1.2% in 2019. It was expected to raise interest rates later this year – probably by the end of the summer. The ECB’s main refinancing interest rate, at which it provides liquidity to banks, has been zero since March 2016, and so there was no scope for lowering it.

Second, although quantitative easing (the asset purchase programme) is coming to an end, there will be no ‘quantitative tightening’. Instead, the ECB will purchase additional assets to replace any assets that mature, thereby leaving the stock of assets held the same. This would continue ‘for an extended period of time past the date when we start raising the key ECB interest rates, and in any case for as long as necessary to maintain favourable liquidity conditions and an ample degree of monetary accommodation’.

Third, the ECB is launching a new series of ‘quarterly targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO-III), starting in September 2019 and ending in March 2021, each with a maturity of two years’. These are low-interest loans to banks in the eurozone for use for specific lending to businesses and households (other than for mortgages) at below-market rates. Banks will be able to borrow up to 30% of their eligible assets (yet to be fully defined). These, as their acronym suggests, are the third round of such loans. The second round was relatively successful. As the Barron’s article linked below states:

Banks boosted their long-term borrowing from the ECB by 70% over the course of the program, although they did not manage to increase their holdings of business loans until after TLTRO II had finished disbursing funds in March 2017.

Whether these measures will be enough to raise growth rates in the eurozone depends on a range of external factors affecting aggregate demand. Draghi identified three factors which could have a negative effect.

  • Brexit. The forecasts assume an orderly Brexit in accordance with the withdrawal deal agreed between the European Commission and the UK government. With the House of Commons having rejected this deal twice, even though it has agreed that there should not be a ‘no-deal Brexit’, this might happen as it is the legal default position. This could have a negative effect on the eurozone economy (as well as a significant one on the UK economy). Even an extension of Article 50 could create uncertainty, which would also have a negative effect
  • Trade wars. If President Trump persists with his protectionist policy, this will have a negative effect on growth in the eurozone and elsewhere.
  • China. Chinese growth has slowed and this dampens global growth. What is more, China is a major trading partner of the eurozone countries and hence slowing Chinese growth impacts on the eurozone through the international trade multiplier. The ECB has taken this into account, but if Chinese growth slows more than anticipated, this will further push down eurozone growth.

Then there are internal uncertainties in the eurozone, such as the political and economic uncertainty in Italy, which in December 2018 entered a recession (2 quarters of negative economic growth). Its budget deficit is rising and this is creating conflict with the European Commission. Also, there are likely to be growing tensions within Italy as the government raises taxes.

Faced with these and other uncertainties, the measures announced by Mario Draghi may turn out not to be enough. Perhaps in a few months’ there may have to be a further round of quantitative easing.

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Questions

    • Investigate the history of quantitative easing and its use by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB. What is the current position of the three central banks on ‘quantitative tightening’, whereby central banks sell some of the stock of assets they have purchased during the process of quantitative easing or not replace them when they mature?
    • What are TLTROs and what use of them has been made by the ECB? Do they involve the creation of new money?
    • What will determine the success of the proposed TLTRO III scheme?
    • If the remit of central banks is to keep inflation on target, which in the ECB’s case means below 2% HIPC inflation but close to it over the medium term, why do people talk about central banks using monetary policy to revive a flagging economy?
    • What is ‘forward guidance’ by central banks and what determines its affect on aggregate demand?

It is impossible to make both precise and accurate forecasts of a country’s rate of economic growth, even a year ahead. And the same goes for other macroeconomic variables, such as the rate of unemployment or the balance of trade. The reason is that there are so many determinants of these variables, such as political decisions or events, which themselves are unpredictable. Economics examines the effects of human interactions – it is a social science, not a natural science. And human behaviour is hard to forecast.

Leading indicators

Nevertheless, economists do make forecasts. These are best estimates, taking into account a number of determinants that can be currently measured, such as tax or interest rate changes. These determinants, or ‘leading indicators’, have been found to be related to future outcomes. For example, surveys of consumer and business confidence give a good indication of future consumer expenditure and investment – key components of GDP.

Leading indicators do not have to be directly causal. They could, instead, be a symptom of underlying changes that are themselves likely to affect the economy in the future. For example, changes in stock market prices may reflect changes in confidence or changes in liquidity. It is these changes that are likely to have a direct or indirect causal effect on future output, employment, prices, etc.

Macroeconomic models show the relationships between variables. They show how changes in one variable (e.g. increased investment) affect other variables (e.g. real GDP or productivity). So when an indicator changes, such as a rise in interest rates, economists use these models to estimate the likely effect, assuming other things remain constant (ceteris paribus). The problem is that other things don’t remain constant. The economy is buffeted around by a huge range of events that can affect the outcome of the change in the indicator or the variable(s) it reflects.

Forecasting can never therefore be 100% accurate (except by chance). Nevertheless, by carefully studying leading indicators, economists can get a good idea of the likely course of the economy.

Leading indicators of the US economy

At the start of 2019, several leading indicators are suggesting the US economy is likely to slow and might even go into recession. The following are some of the main examples.

Political events. This is the most obvious leading indicator. If decisions are made that are likely to have an adverse effect on growth, a recession may follow. For example, decisions in the UK Parliament over Brexit will directly impact on UK growth.

As far as the USA is concerned, President Trump’s decision to put tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from a range of countries, including China, the EU and Canada, led these countries to retaliate with tariffs on US imports. A tariff war has a negative effect on growth. It is a negative sum game. Of course, there may be a settlement, with countries agreeing to reduce or eliminate these new tariffs, but the danger is that the trade war may continue long enough to do serious damage to global economic growth.

But just how damaging it is likely to be is impossible to predict. That depends on future political decisions, not just those of the recent past. Will there be a global rise in protectionism or will countries pull back from such a destructive scenario? On 29 December, President Trump tweeted, ‘Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China. Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!’ China said that it was willing to work with the USA over reaching a consensus on trade.

Rises in interest rates. If these are in response to a situation of excess demand, they can be seen as a means of bringing inflation down to the target level or of closing a positive output gap, where real national income is above its potential level. They would not signify an impending recession. But many commentators have interpreted rises in interest rates in the USA as being different from this.

The Fed is keen to raise interest rates above the historic low rates that were seen as an ’emergency’ response to the financial crisis of 2007–8. It is also keen to reverse the policy of quantitative easing and has begun what might be described as ‘quantitative tightening’: not buying new bonds when existing ones that it purchased during rounds of QE mature. It refers to this interest rate and money supply policy as ‘policy normalization‘. The Fed maintains that such policy is ‘consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective over the medium term’.

However, many commentators, including President Trump, have accused the Fed of going too fast in this process and of excessively dampening the economy. It has already raised the Federal Funds Rate nine times by 0.25 percentage points each time since December 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart). What is more, announcing that the policy will continue makes such announcements themselves a leading indicator of future rises in interest rates, which are a leading indicator of subsequent effects on aggregate demand. The Fed has stated that it expects to make two more 0.25 percentage point rises during 2019.

Surveys of consumer and business confidence. These are some of the most significant leading indicators as consumer confidence affects consumer spending and business confidence affects investment. According to the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook, an influential survey of Chief Financial Officers, ‘Nearly half (48.6 per cent) of US CFOs believe that the US will be in recession by the end of 2019, and 82 per cent believe that a recession will have begun by the end of 2020’. Such surveys can become self-fulfilling, as a reported decline in confidence can itself undermine confidence as both firms and consumers ‘catch’ the mood of pessimism.

Stock market volatility. When stock markets exhibit large falls and rises, this is often a symptom of uncertainty; and uncertainty can undermine investment. Stock market volatility can thus be a leading indicator of an impending recession. One indicator of such volatility is the VIX index. This is a measure of ’30-day expected volatility of the US stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index (SPXSM) call and put options. On a global basis, it is one of the most recognized measures of volatility – widely reported by financial media and closely followed by a variety of market participants as a daily market indicator.’ The higher the index, the greater the volatility. Since 2004, it has averaged 18.4; from 17 to 28 December 2018, it averaged 28.8. From 13 to 24 December, the DOW Jones Industrial Average share index fell by 11.4 per cent, only to rise by 6.2 per cent by 27 December. On 26 December, the S&P 500 index rallied 5 per cent, its best gain since March 2009.

Not all cases of market volatility, however, signify an impending recession, but high levels of volatility are one more sign of investor nervousness.

Oil prices. When oil prices fall, this can be explained by changes on the demand and/or supply side of the oil market. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past two months. Until October 2018, oil prices had been rising, with Brent Crude reaching $86 per barrel by early October. By the end of the year the price had fallen to just over $50 per barrel – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) Part of the explanation is a rise in supply, with shale oil production increasing and also increased output from Russia and Saudi Arabia, despite a commitment by the two countries to reduce supply. But the main reason is a fall in demand. This reflects both a fall in current demand and in anticipated future demand, with fears of oversupply causing oil companies to run down stocks.

Falling oil prices resulting from falling demand are thus an indicator of lack of confidence in the growth of future demand – a leading indicator of a slowing economy.

The yield curve. This depicts the yields on government debt with different lengths to maturity at a given point in time. Generally, the curve slopes upwards, showing higher rates of return on bonds with longer to maturity. This is illustrated by the blue line in the chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) This is as you would expect, with people requiring a higher rate of return on long-term lending, where there is normally greater uncertainty. But, as the Bloomberg article, ‘Don’t take your eyes off the yield curve‘ states:

Occasionally, the curve flips, with yields on short-term debt exceeding those on longer bonds. That’s normally a sign investors believe economic growth will slow and interest rates will eventually fall. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has shown that an inversion has preceded every US recession for the past 60 years.
 
The US economy is 37 quarters into what may prove to be its longest expansion on record. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect gross domestic product growth to come in at 2.9 percent this year, up from 2.2 percent last year. Wages are rising as unfilled vacancies hover near all-time highs.
 
With times this good, the biggest betting game on Wall Street is when they’ll go bad. Barclays Plc, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and other banks are predicting inversion will happen sometime in 2019. The conventional wisdom: Afterward it’s only a matter of time – anywhere from 6 to 24 months – before a recession starts.

As you can see from the chart, the yield curve on 24 December 2018 was still slightly upward sloping (expect between 6-month and 1-year bonds) – but possibly ready to ‘flip’.

However, despite the power of an ‘inverted’ yield in predicting previous recessions, it may be less reliable now. The Fed, as we saw above, has already signalled that it expects to increase short-term rates in 2019, probably at least twice. That alone could make the yield curve flatter or even downward sloping. Nevertheless, it is still generally thought that a downward sloping yield curve would signal belief in a likely slowdown, if not outright recession.

So, is the USA heading for recession?

The trouble with indicators is that they suggest what is likely – not what will definitely happen. Governments and central banks are powerful agents. If they believed that a recession was likely, then fiscal and monetary policy could be adjusted. For example, the Fed could halt its interest rate rises and quantitative tightening, or even reverse them. Also, worries about protectionism may subside if the USA strikes new trade deals with various countries, as it did with Canada and Mexico in USMCA.

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Surveys and Data

Questions

  1. Define the term ‘recession’.
  2. Are periods of above-trend expansion necessarily followed by a recession?
  3. Give some examples of leading indicators other than those given above and discuss their likely reliability in predicting a recession.
  4. Find out what has been happening to confidence levels in the EU over the past 12 months. Does this provide evidence of an impending recession in the EU?
  5. For what reasons may there be lags between a change in an indicator and a change in the variables for which it is an indicator?
  6. Why has the shape of the yield curve previously been a good predictor of the future course of the economy? Is it likely to be at present?
  7. What is the relationship between interest rates, government bond prices (‘Treasuries’ in the USA) and the yield on such bonds?

The Christmas and new year period often draws attention to the financial well-being of households. An important determinant of this is the extent of their indebtedness. Rising levels of debt mean that increasing amounts of households’ incomes becomes prey to servicing debt through repayments and interest charges. They can also result in more people becoming credit constrained, unable to access further credit. Rising debt levels can therefore lead to a deterioration of financial well-being and to financial distress. This was illustrated starkly by events at the end of the 2000s.

The total amount of lending by monetary financial institutions to individuals outstanding at the end of October 2018 was estimated at £1.61 trillion. As Chart 1 shows, this has grown from £408 billion in 1994. Hence, indivduals in the UK have experience a four-fold increase in the levels of debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The debt of individuals is either secured or unsecured. Secured debt is debt secured by property, which for individuals is more commonly referred to as mortgage debt. Unsecured debt, which is also known as consumer credit, includes outstanding debt on credit cards, overdrafts on current accounts and loans for luxury items such as cars and electrical goods. The composition of debt in 2018 is unchanged from that in 1994: 87 per cent is secured debt and 13 per cent unsecured debt.

The fourfold increase in debt is taken by some economists as evidence of financialisation. While this term is frequently defined in distinctive ways depending upon the content in which it is applied, when viewed in very general terms it describes a process by which financial institutions and markets become increasingly important in everyday lives and so in the production and consumption choices that economists study. An implication of this is that in understanding economic decisions, behaviour and outcomes it becomes increasingly important to think about the potential impact of the financial system. The financial crisis is testimony to this.

In thinking about financial well-being, at least at an aggregate level, we can look at the relative size of indebtedness. One way of doing this is to measure the stock of individual debt relative to the annual flow of GDP (national income). This is illustrated in Chart 2. (Click hereto download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth in debt among individuals owed to financial institutions during the 2000s was significant. By the end of 2007, the debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 88 per cent. Decomposing this, the secured debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 75 per cent and the unsecured debt-to-GDP ratio 13 per cent. Compare this with the end of 1994 when secured debt was 46 per cent of GDP, unsecured debt 7 per cent and total debt 53 per cent. In other words, the period between 1994 and 2007 the UK saw a 25 percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio of individuals.

The early 2010s saw a consolidation in the size of the debt (see Chart 1) which meant that it was not until 2014 that debt levels rose above those of 2008. This led to the size of debt relative to GDP falling back by close to 10 percentage points (see Chart 2). Between 2014 and 2018 the stock of debt has increased from around £1.4 trillion to the current level of £1.61 trillion. This increase has been matched by a similar increase in (nominal) GDP so that the relative stock of debt remains little changed at present at around 76 per cent of GDP.

Chart 3 shows the annual growth rate of net lending (lending net of repayments) by monetary financial institutions to individuals. This essentially captures the growth rate in the stocks of debt, though changes in the actual stock of debt are also be affected by the writing-off of debts. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

We can see quite readily the pick up in lending from 2014. The average annual rate of growth in total net lending since 2014 has been just a little under 3½ per cent. This has been driven by unsecured lending whose growth rate has been close to 8½ per cent per annum, compared to just 2.7 per cent for secured lending. In 2016 the annual growth rate of unsecured lending was just shy of 11 per cent. This helped to fuel concerns about possible future financial distress. These concerns remain despite the annual rate of growth in unsecured debt having eased slightly to 7.5 per cent.

Despite the aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio having been relatively stable of late, the recent growth in debt levels is clearly not without concern. It has to be viewed in the context of two important developments. First, there remains a ‘debt hangover’ from the financial distress experienced by the private sector at the end of the 2000s, which itself contributed to a significant decline in economic activity (real GDP fell by 4 per cent in 2009). This subequently affected the financial well-being of the public sector following its interventions to cushion the economy from the full effects of the economic downturn as well as to help stabilise the financial system. Second, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The financial resilience of all sectors of the economy is therefore of acute concern given the unprecedented uncertainty we are currently facing while, at the same time, we are still feeling the effects of the financial distress from the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It therefore seems timely indeed for individuals to take stock of their stocks of debt.

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Questions

  1. How might we measure the financial distress of individuals?
  2. If individuals are financially distressed how might this affect their consumption behaviour?
  3. How might credit constraints affect the relationship between consumption and income?
  4. What do you understand by the concept of ‘cash flow effects’ that arise from interest rate changes?
  5. How might the accumulation of secured and unsecured debt have different effects on consumer spending?
  6. What factors might explain the rate of accumulation of debt by individuals?
  7. What is meant by ‘financial resilience’ and why might this currently be of particular concern?

Would you like to be a millionaire? Of course you would – who wouldn’t, right? Actually the answer to this question may be more complicated than you might think (see for instance Sgroi et al (2017) on the economics of happiness: see linked article below), but, generally speaking, most people would answer positively to this question.

What if I told you, however, that you could become a millionaire (actually, scratch that – think big – make that “trillionaire”) overnight and be deeply unhappy about it? If you don’t believe me see what happened to Zimbabwe 10 years ago, when irresponsible money printing and fiscal easing drove the country’s economy to staggering hyperinflation (see the blogs A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and Fancy a hundred trillion dollar note?. At the peak of the crisis, prices were increasing by a factor of 130 each year. I have in my office a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note (see below) which I show in my lectures when I talk about hyperinflation to my first year Economics for Business students (if you are one of them, make sure not to miss it next February at UEA!). How much is this 100 trillion note worth? Nothing (except, may be, for collectors). It has been withdrawn from circulation as it ended up not even being worth the cost of the paper on which it was printed.

The Zimbabwean economy managed to pull itself out of this spiral of economic death, partly by informally replacing its hyperinflationary currency with the US greenback, and partly by keeping its fiscal spending under control and reverting to more sane economic policy making. That lasted until 2013, after which the government launched a Zimbabwean digital currency (known as “Zollar”) that had a nominal value set equal to a US dollar; and forced its exporters to exchange their greenbacks for Zollars. It then started spending these USD to finance a very ambitious and unsustainable programme of fiscal expansion.

The Economist published yesterday a story that shows the results of this policy – wild price increases and empty supermarket shelves are both back. According to the newspaper’s report:

At a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, the finance minister is staring aghast at a pack of nappies. ‘This is absolutely ridiculous!’, exclaims Mthuli Ncube. ‘$49!’ A manager says it cost $23 two weeks ago, before pointing out other eye-watering items such as $20 Coco Pops. […] Over the past two weeks zollars have been trading at as little as 17 cents to the dollar. The devaluation has led to a surge in prices—and not just in imported goods like nappies. Football fans attending the Zimbabwe v Democratic Republic of Congo game on October 16th were shocked to learn that ticket prices had doubled on match day.

How long will it take for the 100 trillion Zollar to make its appearance again? We shall find out. I am sure Zimbabweans will be less than thrilled!

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Questions

  1. Using an AS/AD diagram, explain the concept of hyperinflation. How can irresponsible fiscal policy-making lead to hyperinflation?
  2. What are the effects of hyperinflation on the people who live in the affected countries? Search the web for examples and case studies, and use them to support your answer.
  3. Once it has started, what policies can be used to fight hyperinflation? Use examples to support your answer.
  4. How does speculation affect hyperinflation?