Looking to avoid the credit card blues

I found myself singing this morning which I have to admit is not the most pleasant experience for those in ear-shot. I was singing to the tune of ‘love is all around us’. But rather than the words of the song performed by the Troggs in the late 1960s and by Wet Wet Wet in the 1990s, I found myself singing ‘debt is all around us’. It could easily have been the sub-conscious effect of the headlines relating to government debt (also known as national debt). But, actually it was the effect of having looked at my latest credit card statement and noting the impact that my summer holiday had had on my financial position! Relaxation, so it seems, doesn’t come cheap. With this in mind, I have just taken a look at the latest bank of England figures on British household debt. You can do the same by going to the Bank of England’s statistical release lending to individuals.

The latest figures reveal that at the end of June 2011 households in Britain had a stock of debt of £1.451 trillion. Now this is a big number – not far short of the economy’s annual Gross Domestic Product. But, interestingly, this is its lowest level in three years. Indeed, over the past twelve months the stock of household debt has fallen by £6 billion. This is the result of the sector’s repayment of unsecured debt, such as credit card debt and overdrafts. The stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £8.2 billion or 3.8% over the past year to stand at £209.7 billion.

The remaining £1.241 trillion of household debt is secured debt which is debt secured against property. The stock of secured debt has risen by £2.16 billion over the last 12 months, but this equates to a rise of less than 0.2%. In fact, further evidence from the Bank of England reveals that households are not only looking to reduce their exposure to unsecured debt but to pay off mortgage debt too. You might wonder how this might be occurring given that the stock of mortgage debt has risen, albeit only slightly. 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 money on improving our existing housing stock we acquire more mortgage debt. Bank of England figures show that housing investment has been greater than new secured lending. Consequently, the additions to the stock of lending have been less than housing investment. This gives rise to negative housing equity withdrawal, i.e. negative HEW.

The Bank of England estimates that in Q1 of 2011 there was an increase in housing equity of £5.8 billion. Negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW), an injection of housing equity, has occurred every quarter since Q2 2008. Since then, the UK household sector has injected some £63.7 billion of housing equity. The opportunity cost of this injection is that by increasing equity in property households are using money that could have been used for consumption or for purchasing financial assets. The extent of this negative HEW over the past 12 quarters has been the equivalent to 2.2% of disposable income.

While my credit card may have ballooned this month, it would appear that the household sector is looking to reduce its debt exposure. I will be looking to do likewise!


Housing injection goes on BBC News (4/7/11)
Personal insolvencies rise Independent, Philip Whiterow (5/8/11)
Mortgage boom as homeowners cash in an try reduce debts Independent, Simeon Read (5/7/11)
Homeowners inject £5.8 billion of equity into property in first quarter Telegraph, Emma Rowley (5/7/11)
Housing equity injection continues Guardian, Hilary Osborne (4/7/11)


Lending to individuals statistical release Bank of England
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical release Bank of England


  1. Illustrate with examples what is meant by secured and unsecured debt.
  2. What factors might help to explain the longer-term growth in secured and unsecured debt over recent decades?
  3. What factors might help to explain the more recent patterns in secured and unsecured debt?
  4. What do you understand by the term housing equity withdrawal?
  5. What is meant by negative HEW?
  6. What factors might help to explain the negative HEW observed for the past twelve quarters?
  7. What implications might there be for economic growth of negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW)?