Colour by numbers: Painting an economic picture of UK households

I have something of an admission to make: I love data. I suppose it goes back to my time working as a civil servant. My job was to brief on the latest data releases relevant to the household sector and to try to interpret what the latest numbers might be telling us. It meant that on one day I might be briefing about the latest household spending numbers and the next on house prices. It was not only great fun but it also helped my understanding of economics and, importantly, my understanding of the issues and topics that economists wrestle with. Data help to give context perhaps by placing current outcomes, such as the latest high street sales figures, in an historical context or by enabling international comparisons, such as comparing UK consumer behaviour to that across the Channel in France. These days I spend my time teaching, but I retain my passion for data and I do all that I can to convey this to those I teach. So, what I thought we would do here is to look at a few numbers relating to UK households, show that we need not be frightened by them, and show how they can help to paint a picture of the current economic behaviour of the UK consumer.

My first teaching week back this academic term began by talking to students about consumer spending. I think it’s important that those new to economics and learning about household spending behaviour have a sense of how much UK households spend, how this varies, and why how much the sector spends is important. Let’s begin with the household spending figure for 2009 – the 2010 figure will not be available for a couple of months. By going to the latest release of the Quarterly National Accounts we discover that UK households spent £874 billion in 2009. Though a big enough figure in its own right, it is actually 2% less than the £892 billion in 2008. But, more than this, remember that these are nominal values reflecting the prices of 2008 and 2009. The average price of household consumption goods and services rose by 1.3% between these two years which, if we eliminate, means that the volume of consumer spending fell by 3.3%.

To convince anyone that patterns in household spending do matter is pretty straightforward. One way of doing this is to consider household spending relative to GDP, i.e. the value of our country’s output. If we return to latest Quarterly National Accounts we discover that GDP in 2009 is estimated at £1.39 trillion. So with household spending of £874 billion and total output of £1.39 trillion we can readily see the value of households as purchasers of this output. To be more specific, household spending in 2009 was equivalent to some 63% of GDP. This is one of the reasons why economists pay so much attention to trying to interpret the spending patterns of households – one of my old jobs – and, of course, trying to predict the future path of household spending.

You might be wondering about more recent patterns in household consumption since, after all, 2009 now seems quite a while ago. Well, in the third quarter of 2010 household spending was estimated at £232.3 billion and if we add to this the revised figures for the previous three quarters we get a 4-quarter total of £910.4 billion. For many analysts though the key numbers relate to the growth in the volume of household spending. In Q3 2009 real household spending grew by 0.3%. Whilst the first quarter of 2010 saw spending volumes decline by 0.1%, Q3 was the second consecutive quarter in which spending volumes increased. The concern, however, was that the 0.3% growth in Q3 was down on the 0.8% growth in Q2. We wait with much interest the Q4 figure.

When I talk to students about the determinants of household spending many, quite naturally, will point to the importance of disposable income. Again let’s return to the Quarterly National Accounts. In 2009 the disposable income, i.e. post-tax income, of the household sector was estimated at £942.2 billion. That’s another big number. Let’s put that alongside our spending number for households of £874.4 billion and we have an average propensity to consume (APC) out of disposable income of 0.92 which compares with 0.97 in 2008 and 0.98 in 2007. This suggests that households were inclined to do other things with their income in 2009 than just merely spend it. We observe this too if we take note of the real changes in consumption and income in 2009. After removing the impact of price changes, we find that while consumption volumes fell by 3.3%, the spending power of the sector’s disposable income actually rose by 1.1%.

But, what of more recent patterns in disposable income? Well, disposable income in Q3 2010 is estimated to have been £244.3 billion which with consumption of £232.3 billion equates to an average propensity to come out of disposable income of 0.95. If we again add the Q3 disposable income number to those from the previous three quarters we have a 4-quarter disposable income figure of £964.4 billion which gives us an average propensity to consume over this period of 0.94 and, hence, a tad higher than 2009, albeit not at the levels of 2007 and 2008. Meanwhile, real disposable income rose by 1.1% in Q3 following a 2% decline in Q2. The quarterly disposable income series is a notoriously volatile series and the recent past has seen no change in that. Perhaps the key fact though is that the real value of the household sector’s disposable income in Q3 2010 was 1.5% lower than it was a year earlier. Hence, while real disposable income grew across 2009, it is likely to have fallen across 2010.

So why did household spending fall so markedly in 2009 despite the rise in disposable income. It is likely that the impact of the financial crisis, the subsequent recession and a sense of uncertainty amongst households will have been contributory factors. One way in which these factors seems to have affected UK households is in their desire to reduce their exposure to debt. So we end with a few numbers, some a little eye-watering, which relate to household debt and demonstrate the attempt by households to improve their financial positions.

Figures from the Bank of England contained within Table 3 of their statistical release lending to individuals show that at the end of November 2010 households had a stock of debt of £1.454 trillion, not too dissimilar a number to that for GDP! But, this is £5.6 billion less than at the end of November 2009. The main reason for this is the sector’s repayment of unsecured debt, such as credit card debt and overdrafts. Unsecured debt fell by £13.4 billion over the year to stand at £214.1 billion.

The remaining £1.24 trillion of household debt is secured debt and so debt secured against property. This has risen by £7.7 billion over the 12 months to November. But, it would be a mistake to believe that because the overall stock of mortgage debt hasn’t fallen that households are not trying to paying it off. How can this be, you might ask? The answer lies in the growth of housing investment relative to that of mortgage debt. Housing investment relates, in the main, to the purchase of brand new homes and to major home improvements. As our population grows and the housing stock expands and as we spend more on improving our existing housing stock we acquire more mortgage debt. However, the Bank of England figures shows that housing investment has been greater than new secured lending. In other words, the additions to the stock of lending have been less than housing investment.

In Q3 the Bank of England estimates an increase of housing equity of £6.1 billion. Negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW), an injection of housing equity, has become something of a new norm dating back to when the UK economy went into recession in Q2 2008. Since then, the UK household sector has injected some £49.7 billion of housing equity. This, of course, comes at a potential cost for the economy because by increasing equity in property households are using money that cannot be used to fund current consumption or to purchase financial assets. The extent of this negative HEW over the past 10 quarters has been the equivalent to 2.1% of disposable income.

So that ends my tour of the household sector through numbers. Hopefully, the numbers have helped to paint a picture of the importance of the household sector for the economy and to make you think about some of the variables that affect the sector’s behaviour. Given these interesting economic times, painting by economic numbers has never been so much fun!


Mortgage debt falls for the 10th quarter in a row BBC News (29/12/10)
Homeowners make record mortgage repayments Independent, Hugo Young (30/12/10)
Homeowners reduce their mortgages by £6bn in just three months Telegraph, Louise Armistead (30/12/10)
Homeowners paying off mortgages at faster rate Guardian, Jill Insley (29/12/10)
Homeowners paying back mortgages at rapid rate Daily Mail (29/12/10)
Christmas trading hit by snow, says BRC Financial Times, Chris Giles (11/1/11)
Festive freeze hits sales across the high street Independent, James Thompson (11/1/11)
Shoppers hit hard by inflation Independent (12/11/10)
Families warned by Bank of England of even more painful year ahead Daily Mail, Lucy Farndon (28/12/10)
Shop inflation accelerated in December on commodities, retailers say Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell


Lending to individuals statistical release Bank of England
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical release Bank of England
Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (22/12/10)
Quarterly National Accounts, 3rd Quarter 2010 Office for National Statistics (22/12/10)
UK Economic Accounts, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission


  1. What factors do you think affect consumer spending in the short-term, say over a three-month period? Would the same factors be important if we were looking at spending patterns over a longer period of time?
  2. Consumers are sometimes described as consumption-smoothers which means that they look to smooth their profile of spending in the face of volatile incomes. What factors do you think affect their ability to do this?
  3. Would you expect the relationship between consumption and income to be consistent and predictable? Explain your answer.
  4. Why do you think real spending values fell in 2009 despite real disposable income rising? Does this mean that households are not in fact consumption-smoothers?
  5. The financial system enables households to accumulate financial assets, financial liabilities and to acquire housing wealth. How might these three variables impact on household spending?
  6. Illustrate with examples what is meant by secured and unsecured debt. Does the long-term accumulation of stocks of these debts have any consequences for household spending?
  7. What do you understand by the term housing equity withdrawal? What is meant by negative HEW and which the UK has observed for the past ten quarters?
  8. What factors might help to explain the ten consecutive quarters of negative HEW? Would you expect things to change in the near future? Explain your answer.
  9. What is the opportunity cost of positive housing equity withdrawal (HEW)? What about the opportunity cost of negative HEW?
  10. To what extent do you think household spending affects economic growth? Is household spending a long-term driver of economic growth?