George Osborne in his recent Autumn Statement, once again stressed that ‘the government is committed to strong, sustainable and balanced growth’. But while he plans to reduce government debt as a percentage of GDP, consumer debt is rising, both absolutely and as a percentage of household disposable income. The rise in household borrowing, and the resulting rise in consumer expenditure, has been the main factor driving economic growth. It has not been exports nor, until recently, investment, as the Chancellor had hoped. Indeed, investment in new housing is falling.
The Office for Budget Responsibility in its latest Economic and Fiscal Outlook forecasts that gross household debt will reach 163 per cent of household disposable income by 2021, up from 146% at the end of 2015.
Consumer gross debt includes both secured debt and unsecured debt. Secured debt is essentially debt secured on property (i.e. mortgages), while unsecured debt is largely in the form of credit card debt, overdrafts and personal loans.
The chart shows that from 2008 to 2013, gross debt fell as a percentage of personal disposable income. Following the financial crisis, banks were more cautious about lending as they sought to increase their capital and liquidity ratios. And consumers were more cautious about borrowing as the uncertainty made many people keen to reduce their debts. This decline in credit reversed the massive growth in household debt from 2000 to 2008: one of the contributing factors to the financial crisis. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
But since late 2013, household debt – both secured and unsecured – has been rising. In absolute (nominal) terms, individuals’ debt is now £1.43 trillion, slightly above the previous high in 2008. And as the chart shows, the OBR forecasts that it will continue rising. This makes consumers more vulnerable to adverse economic shocks, such as a downturn in emerging markets, another crisis in the eurozone or financial crises in other parts of the world.
And as consumer debt has been rising, the personal saving ratio (the ratio of saving to personal disposable incomes) has been falling and is now lower than before the financial crisis.
The rise in consumer borrowing has been of some concern to the Bank of England. Andy Haldane, the Bank’s Chief Economist, appearing before the Treasury Select Committee, warned that consumer credit, and in particular personal loans, had been ‘picking up at a rate of knots. That ultimately might be an issue that the Financial Policy Committee might want to look at fairly carefully.’
The UK economy may be growing, but in a highly unbalanced way The Guardian, Phillip Inman (27/11/15)
UK growth hit by biggest drag from net trade on record The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (27/11/15)
Surge in consumer lending could prompt Bank of England intervention The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Jill Treanor (30/11/15)
Consumer spending rise troubles Bank of England The Guardian, Heather Stewart (24/11/15)
Between Debt and the Devil by Adair Turner review – should the government start printing money? The Guardian, Tom Clark (25/11/15)
Lending rises as Bank of England ponders new curbs Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (30/11/15)
Carney indicates BoE’s willingness to rein in credit Financial TImes, Chris Giles (5/11/15)
FCA sounds alarm at rising credit card debt Financial Times, Emma Dunkley (3/11/15)
Interest rates will stay low for longer – but household debt is a worry, says BoE The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (24/11/15)
Seven years after the crisis, Britain is still addicted to the drug of debt Independent, James Moore (1/12/15)
Vince Cable: Former Business Secretary warns that ‘severe economic storms’ are on the way Independent, Ben Chu (14/11/15)
The risks stalking the UK economy BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (1/12/15)
Economic and fiscal outlook Office for Budget Responsibility (25/11/15)
Economic and fiscal outlook charts and tables (Excel file) Office for Budget Responsibility (25/11/15)
- Does it matter if economic growth is driven by a rise in consumer demand, in turn driven by a risen in consumer credit?
- Is there an inflation risk from growth being driven by a rise in consumer credit?
- What is the precise relationship between the household saving ratio and the household debt ratio? (Which of these ratios is a stock and which is a flow?)
- What might cause a fall in consumer borrowing? Would this be a good thing?
- Why did consumer borrowing fall following the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What could the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee do to curb consumer borrowing?
- If banks were forced to hold more reserves, how could aggregate demand be maintained? Would ‘helicopter money’ be a good idea?
- What are ‘countercyclical buffers for banks’? What are the arguments for raising them at the current time?
Following the banking crisis of 2007/8 a new set of international banking regulations was agreed in 2010 by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. The purpose was to strengthen banks’ capital base. Under ‘Basel III’, banks would be required, in stages, to meet specific minimum capital adequacy ratios: i.e. minimum ratios of capital to (risk-weighted) assets. The full regulations would come into force by 2019. These are shown in the chart below.
The new Financial Policy Committee of the Bank of England has judged that some UK banks have insufficient ‘common equity tier 1 capital’. This is defined as ordinary shares in the bank plus the bank’s reserves. According to the Bank of England:
… the immediate objective should be to achieve a common equity tier 1 capital ratio, based on Basel III definitions and, after the required adjustments, of at least 7% of risk-weighted assets by end 2013. Some banks, even after the adjustments described above, have capital ratios in excess of 7%; for those that do not, the aggregate capital shortfall at end 2012 was around £25 billion.
Thus the banking system in the UK is being required, by the end of 2013, to meet the 7% ratio. This could be done, either by increasing the amount of capital or by reducing the amount of assets. The Bank of England is keen for banks not to reduce assets, which would imply a reduction in lending. Similarly, it does not want banks to increase reserves at the expense of lending. Either action could push the economy back into recession. Rather the Bank of England wants banks to raise more capital. But that requires sufficient confidence by investors.
And the end of this year is not the end of the process. After that, further increases in capital will be required, so that by 2019 banks are fully compliant with Basel III. All this will make it difficult for certain banks to raise enough capital from investors. As far as RBS and the Lloyds Banking Group are concerned, this will make the prospect of privatising them more difficult. But that is what the government eventually wants. It does not want the taxpayer to have to find the extra capital. Re-capitalising the banks, or at least some of them, may prove difficult.
The following articles look at the implications of the FPC judgement and whether strengthening the banks will strengthen or weaken the rest of the economy.
Financial policy committee identifies £25bn capital shortfall in UK banks The Guardian, Jill Treanor (27/3/13)
Banks Told To Raise Capital By Financial Policy Committee To Cushion Against A Crisis Huffington Post (27/3/13)
UK banks’ £25bn shortfall: positive for banks, negative for BoE credibility, Sid Verma (27/3/13)
Doubts over Bank of England’s £25bn confidence game The Telegraph, Harry Wilson (27/3/13)
Bank of England tells banks to raise £25bn BBC News (27/3/13)
Q&A: Basel rules on bank capital – who cares? Laurence Knight (13/9/10)
U.K. Banks Seen Avoiding Share Sales After BOE Capital Review Bloomberg Businessweek, Gavin Finch and Howard Mustoe (27/3/13)
Banks Cut Basel III Shortfall by $215 Billion in Mid-2012 Bloomberg (19/3/13)
Will strengthening banks weaken the economy? BBC News, Robert Peston (27/3/13)
Bank of England News Release
Financial Policy Committee statement from its policy meeting, 19 March 2013 Bank of England (27/3/13)
- Explain the individual parts of the chart.
- What do you understand by risk-weighted assets?
- Distinguish between capital adequacy ratios and liquidity ratios.
- What could the banks do to increase their capital adequacy ratios? Compare the desirability of each method.
- If all banks around the world were Basel III compliant, would this make another global banking crisis impossible?
As part of the Basel III round of banking regulations, representatives of the EU Parliament and member governments have agreed with the European Commission that bankers’ bonuses should be capped. The proposal is to cap them at 100% of annual salary, or 200% with the agreement of shareholders. The full Parliament will vote in May and then it will go to officials from the 27 Member States. Under a system of qualified majority voting, it is expected to be accepted, despite UK resistance.
The main arguments in favour of a cap are that it will reduce the focus of bankers on short-term gains and reduce the incentive to take excessive risks. It will also appease the anger of electorates throughout the EU over bankers getting huge bonuses, especially in the light of the recession, caused in major part by the excesses of bankers.
The main argument against is that it will drive talented top bankers to countries outside the EU. This is a particular worry of the UK government, fearful of the effect on the City of London. There is also the criticism that it will simply drive banks into increasing basic salaries of senior executives to compensate for lower bonuses.
But it is not just the EU considering curbing bankers’ pay. The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to give shareholders the right to veto salaries and bonuses of executives of major companies. Many of these companies are banks or other financial sector organisations.
So just what will be the effect on incentives, banks’ performance and the movement of top bankers to countries without such caps? The following videos and articles explore these issues. As you will see, the topic is highly controversial and politically charged.
Meanwhile, HSBC has revealed its 2012 results. It paid out $1.9bn in fines for money laundering and set aside a further $2.3bn for mis-selling financial products in the UK. But its underlying profits were up 18%. Bonuses were up too. The 16 top executives received an average of $4.9m each. The Chief Executive, Stuart Gulliver, received $14.1m in 2012, 33% up on 2011 (see final article below).
Webcasts and podcasts
EU moves to cap bankers bonuses Euronews on Yahoo News (1/3/13)
EU to Curb Bank Bonuses WSJ Live (28/2/13)
Inside Story – Curbing Europe’s bank bonuses AlJazeera on YouTube (1/3/13)
Will EU bonus cap ‘damage economy’? BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (28/2/13)
Swiss back curbs on executive pay in referendum BBC News (3/3/13)
Has the HSBC scandal impacted on business? BBC News, Jeremy Howell (4/3/13)
Bonuses: the essential guide The Guardian, Simon Bowers, Jill Treanor, Fiona Walsh, Julia Finch, Patrick Collinson and Ian Traynor (28/2/13)
Q&A: EU banker bonus cap plan BBC News (28/2/13)
Outcry, and a Little Cunning, From Euro Bankers The New York Times, Landon Thomas Jr. (28/2/13)
Bank bonuses may shrink – but watch as the salaries rise The Observer, Rob Taylor (3/3/13)
Don’t cap bank bonuses, scrap them The Guardian, Deborah Hargreaves (28/2/13)
Capping banker bonuses simply avoids facing real bank problems The Telegraph, Mats Persson (2/3/13)
Pro bonus The Economist, Schumpeter column (28/2/13)
‘The most deluded measure to come from Europe since fixing the price of groceries in the Roman Empire’: Boris Johnson attacks EU banker bonus cap Independent, Gavin Cordon , Geoff Meade (28/2/13)
EU agrees to cap bankers’ bonuses BBC News (28/2/13)
Viewpoints: EU banker bonus cap BBC News (28/2/13)
Voters crack down on corporate pay packages swissinfo.ch , Urs Geiser (3/3/13)
Swiss voters seen backing executive pay curbs Reuters, Emma Thomasson (3/3/13)
Swiss referendum backs executive pay curbs BBC News (3/3/13)
Voters in Swiss referendum back curbs on executives’ pay and bonuses The Guardian, Kim Willsher and Phillip Inman (3/3/13)
Swiss vote for corporate pay curbs Financial Times, James Shotter and Alex Barker (3/3/13)
HSBC pays $4.2bn for fines and mis-selling in 2012 BBC News (4/3/13)
- How does competition, or a lack of it, in the banking industry affect senior bankers’ remuneration?
- What incentives are created by the bonus structure as it is now? Do these incentives result in desirable outcomes?
- How would you redesign the bonus system so that the incentives resulted in beneficial outcomes?
- If bonuses are capped as proposed by the EU, how would you assess the balance of advantages and disadvantages? What additional information would you need to know to make such an assessment?
- How has the relationship between banks and central banks over the past few years created a moral hazard? How could such a moral hazard be eliminated?