1.43 trillion reasons for economists to better understand households

As of 31 October 2013, British households had a stock of debt close to £1.43 trillion. Economists are increasingly recognising that the financial well-being of economic agents is an important macroeconomic issue. The financial position of households, businesses and governments can be expected to affect behaviour and, hence, economic activity.

We can calculate the net financial wealth of households as the difference between their stock of financial assets (savings) and their financial liabilities (debt). The latest figures from the Bank of England’s Money and Credit show that as of Halloween 2013, British households had amassed a stock of debt of £1.4296 trillion. It is certainly a large figure since it not far short of the expected GDP figure for 2013 of around £1.6 trillion.

The chart above helps to show that of the aggregate household debt, £1.271 trillion is secured debt (debt secured against property). The remaining stock of £158.589 billion is unsecured debt (e.g. overdrafts, outstanding credit card debt and personal loans). In short, 89 per cent of the stock of outstanding household debt is mortgage debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

In January 1994 the stock of secured debt stood at £358.75 billion and the stock of unsecured debt at £53.773 billion. 87 per cent of debt then was secured debt and, hence, little different to today. The total stock of debt has grown by 247 per cent between January 1994 and October 2013. Unsecured debt has grown by 199 per cent while secured debt has grown by 254 per cent.

But, consider now the path of debt between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. During this period, the monthly series of the stock of unsecured debt has fallen on 52 occasions and risen on only 9 occasions. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has fallen on only 10 occasions and often by very small amounts. Consequently, the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by 22.8 per cent between the end of October 2008 and October 2013. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has risen by 3.9 per cent. The total stock of debt has risen by 0.1 per cent over this period and, therefore, it is essentially unchanged.

The amount of debt accumulated by households is example of the increasing importance of the financial system in our everyday lives. The term financialisation helps to capture this. Financialisation means that economists need to think much more about how financial institutions and the financial well-being of people, businesses and governments affect economic activity. There is little doubt that the financial position or financial health of economic agents, such as households, affects their behaviour. We would expect in the case of households for their financial well-being to exert an influence on their propensities to spending or save. But, just how is an area in need of much, much more research.


UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)


Money and Credit – October 2013 Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England


  1. Outline the ways in which the financial system could impact on the spending behaviour of households.
  2. Why might the current level of income not always be the main determinant of a household’s spending?
  3. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
  4. Explain what you understand by net lending to individuals. How does net lending to individuals affect stocks of debt?
  5. Outline the main patterns seen in the stock of household debt over the past decade and discuss what you consider to be the principal reasons for these patterns.
  6. What factors might explain the rather different pattern seen in the growth of debt since October 2008 compared with that in earlier part of the 2000s?
  7. What do you understand by the term financialisation? Of what importance is this phenomenon to economic behaviour?