Research from the Halifax estimates that the total wealth of UK households at the end of 2009 was £6.316 trillion. Putting this into context, it means that the average UK household has a stock of wealth of £236,998. In real terms, so stripping out the effects of consumer price inflation, the total wealth of households has grown five-fold since 1959 while the average wealth per household has grown three-fold while. The growth in wealth per household is a little less because of the increase in the number of households from 6.6 million to 26.6 million. For those that like their numbers, total household wealth in 1959 was estimated at £1.251 trillion (at 2009 prices) while the average amount per household was £72,719 (at 2009 prices).
But, do changes in household wealth matter? Well, yes, but not necessarily in a consistent and predictable manner. That’s why so many of us love economics! For now, consider the prices of two possible types of assets: share prices and house prices. The prices of both these assets are notoriously volatile and it is this volatility that has the potential to affect the growth of consumer spending.
It might be, for instance, that you are someone who keeps a keen eye on the FTSE-100 because you use shares as a vehicle for saving. A fall in share prices, by reducing the value of the stock of financial assets, may make some people less inclined to spend. Housing too can be used as a vehicle for saving. Changes in house prices will, of course, affect the capital that can be realised from selling property, but also affect the collateral that can be used to support additional borrowing and, more generally, affect how wealthy or secure we feel.
The Halifax estimates that the household sector’s stock of housing wealth was £3.755 trillion at the end of 2009 while its stock of financial assets (such as savings, pensions and shares) was £4.024 trillion. In real terms, housing wealth has grown on average by 5% per year since 1959 while financial assets have grown by 2.8% per year. Of course, while households can have financial and housing assets they are likely to have financial liabilities too! We would expect households’ exposure to these liabilities – and their perception of this exposure – to offer another mechanism by which household spending could be affected. For instance, changes in interest rates impact on variable rate mortgages rates, affecting the costs of servicing debt and, in turn, disposable incomes.
The Halifax reports that the stock of mortgage loans was £1.235 trillion at the end of 2009, which, when subtracted from residential housing wealth, means that the UK household sector had net housing equity of £2.519 trillion. It estimates that the stock of mortgage loans has increased on average by 6.5% per year in real terms since 1959 while net housing equity has grown by 4.5%. The stock of households’ unsecured debt, also known as consumer credit, was £227 billon at the end of 2009. In real terms it has grown by 5.3% per year since 1959.
The recent patterns in household wealth are particularly interesting. Between 2007 and 2008 downward trends in share prices and house prices contributed to a 15% real fall in household wealth. The Halifax note that some of this was ‘recouped’ in 2009 as a result of a rebound in both share prices and house prices. More precisely, household wealth increased by 9% in real terms in 2009, but, nonetheless, was still 8% below its 2007 peak.
Given the recent patterns in household wealth, including the volatility in the components that go to comprise this stock of wealth, we shouldn’t be overly surprised by the 3.2% real fall that occurred in household spending last year. Further, we must not forget that 2009 was also the year, amongst other things, that the economy shrunk by 4.9%, that unemployment rose from 1.8 million to 2.5 million and that growing concerns about the size of the government’s deficit highlighted the need for fiscal consolidation at some point in the future. All of these ingredients created a sense of uncertainty. This is an uncertainty that probably remains today and that is likely to continue to moderate consumer spending in 2010. So, it’s unlikely to be a time for care-free shopping, more a time for window shopping!
Halifax Press Release
UK household wealth increases five-fold in the past 50 years Halifax (part of the Lloyds Banking Group) (15/5/10)
Household wealth ‘up five-fold’ UK Press Association (15/5/10)
We’ve never had it so good: Families five times richer than in 1959 Daily Mail, Steve Doughty (15/5/10)
Household wealth grows five-fold in past 50 years BBC News (16/5/10)
Average household wealth jumps £150,000 Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (15/5/10)
- Draw up a list of the ways in which you think consumer spending may be affected by: (i) the stock of household wealth; and (ii) the composition of household wealth.
- What factors do you think lie behind the annual 5% real term increase in the value of residential properties since 1959?.
- How might the sensitivity of consumer spending to changes in interest rates be affected by the types of mortgage product available?
- Why do you think consumer spending fell by 3.2% in real terms in 2009 despite real disposable income increasing by 3.2%?
- What would you predict for consumption growth in 2010? Explain your answer.