There is a new craze sweeping across nations. We might call it the Consolidation Conga! Across the world, and, in particular Europe, government after government seems to be announcing plans to cut its budget deficit. But, with so much focus on governments’ plans for fiscal consolidation it would be all too easy to ignore evidence of consolidation in other sectors too. In the UK, the household sector continues to show a zest for the consolidation of its own finances.
Figures from the Bank of England show that during April net unsecured lending, i.e. lending through credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans less repayments, was again in negative territory, this time to the tune of £136 million. This means that the repayment of unsecured debt exceeded new unsecured lending by £136 million. When an allowance is made for unsecured debt ‘written off’ by financial institutions, we find that the stock of unsecured debt fell by £827 million.
April’s fall in the stock of unsecured debt means that the household sector’s stock of unsecured debt has now fallen for 11 months in a row. Over this period the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £11.47 billion or by 4.9%. Some of this fall is clearly attributable to the ‘writing off’ of bad debts since net unsecured lending has been negative in only 6 of these 11 months. However, this should not detract from our central message of a consolidation by households of their finances. Indeed, the sum of net unsecured lending over these 11 months is -£459 million. In other words, over the period from June 2009 to April 2010 the household sector made a net repayment of unsecured debt of some £459 million.
While the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £11.47 billion since last June to stand at £220.77 billion in April 2010, the household sector’s overall stock of debt has fallen too, although only by £178 million to £1,459.5 billion. The much smaller decrease in total debt reflects an increase in the stock of mortgage debt by £11.291 billion over the same period. But, there are two points to make here. Firstly, it is difficult to over-play the fact that the overall stock of household debt has fallen. If we look at the Bank of England’s monthly series which goes back to April 1993, the first monthly fall in the total stock of debt did not occur until October 2008. In other words, the norm has simply been for total household debt to increase.
The second point to make is that the growth in secured debt has slowed markedly. The stock of secured debt in April was only 0.9% higher than a year earlier. But, more than this, the Bank of England’s Housing Equity Withdrawal numbers show that since the second quarter of 2008 the household sector’s stock of secured borrowing has increased by less than we would have expected given the additional housing investment, i.e. money spent on moving costs, the purchase of newly built properties or expenditure on major home improvements. This has resulted in what we know as negative Housing Equity Withdrawal (HEW). This again is evidence that households too are consolidating.
The desire for the household sector to consolidate and to reduce its exposure to debt is pretty understandable, especially given these uncertain times. But, as we discuss in Has the tide turned for Keynesianism?, there are dangers for national and global aggregate demand of mass consolidation. It remains to be seen if we can really afford for so many to be dancing the Consolidation Conga!
Housing market on a knife edge with no sign of sustained recovery in lending Independent, David Prosser (3/6/10)
UK mortgage lending edges higher BBC News (2/6/10)
Mortgage data raise housing recovery fears Financial Times, Norma Cohen (2/6/10)
Mixed lending data point to stagnant housing markets Reuters (2/6/10)
Mortgage approvals slightly higher Press Association (3/6/10)
Lending to individuals Bank of England
Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) Bank of England (See Tables A5.1 to A5.7, in particular)
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England
- What does a negative net lending figure indicate?
- If net lending is negative does this mean that the stock of debt is falling?
- What factors might be driving households to consolidate their finances?
- Discuss the potential economic benefits and dangers of households consolidating their finances.
- Of what significance is the extent of the household sector’s consolidation of its finances for: (i) the government and (ii) the Bank of England?