Sales during the weeks leading up to Christmas often make a significant contribution to retailers’ profits. For many consumers, it is a time to spend money on food, presents and decorations and this often means increased borrowing.
Data indicate that borrowing by consumers in the lead-up to Christmas increased by the biggest amount for almost 8 years: a figure of £1.5 billion. As a result, there were likely to have been many happy families at Christmas, with lots of gifts being exchanged. But what does this mean for the New Year? There are concerns about the increase we will see in consumer debt throughout 2016 and the number of borrowers who will, perhaps, be unable to repay their debts.
Could this significant increase in borrowing be a signal that we haven’t learnt from our past? This article from BBC News considers the borrowing data and their implications.
Borrowing jumped ahead of Christmas, Bank of England says BBC News, Brian Milligan (4/01/16)
- Is borrowing good or bad for the economy? Explain your answer.
- If borrowing is good for the economy, why are there concerns about the current level of borrowing?
- How will this higher level of borrowing affect aggregate demand? Use an AD/AS diagram to explain the impact this will have.
- Could this higher level of borrowing affect unemployment and inflation? In what ways?
- If interest rates had been higher, do you think the level of consumer borrowing would have been lower?
Insolvencies in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level since 2005, official records show. The Insolvency Service indicates that bankruptcy, individual voluntary arrangements and debt relief orders have fallen, with the largest and worst form of bankruptcy falling by 22.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2014. There has also been a fall in corporate insolvencies back to pre-crisis levels.
The British economy is recovering and despite an increase in consumer borrowing of £1.2 billion from February to March, which is the biggest since the onset of the credit crunch, the number of people in financial difficulty and living beyond their means has fallen. However, there are also suggestions that the number could begin to creep up in the future and we are still seeing a divide between the north and south of England in terms of the number of insolvencies.
There are many factors that could explain such a decline in insolvencies. Perhaps it is the growth in wages, in part due the recovery of the economy, which has enabled more people to forgo borrowing or enabled them to repay any loan more comfortably. Lower inflation has helped to reduce the cost of living, thereby increasing the available income to repay any loans. Interest rates have also remained low, thus cutting the cost of borrowing and the repayments due.
But, another factor may simply be that lending is now more closely regulated. Prior to the financial crisis, huge amounts of money were being lent out, often to those who had no chance of making the repayments. More stringent affordability checks by lenders may have a large part to play in reducing the number of insolvencies. President of R3, the insolvency practitioner body, Phillip Sykes said:
“It may be too early to draw conclusions but demand could be falling as a result of low interest rates, low inflation and tighter regulation. This trend is worth watching.”
Mark Sands, from Baker Tilly added to this, noting that fewer people were now in financial difficulty.
“As well as this, we are seeing lower levels of personal debt and fewer people borrowing outside of their means due to more stringent affordability checks by creditors.”
Whatever the main reason behind the data, it is certainly a positive indicator, perhaps of economic recovery, or that at least some have learned the lessons of the financial crisis. The following articles consider this topic.
Personal insolvencies fall to 10-year low Financial Times, James Pickford (1/5/15)
Personal insolvencies at lowest level since 2005 BBC News (29/4/15)
Personal insolvencies drop to lowest level in a decade The Guardian, Press Association (29/4/15)
Corporate insolvencies at lowest level since 2007 The Telegraph, Elizabeth Anderson (30/4/15)
Interview: R3 President Phillip Sykes Accountancy Age, Richard Crump (1/5/15)
North-South gap widens in personal insolvencies Independent, Ben Chu (27/4/15)
Insolvency rates show ‘stark’ north-south divide Financial Times, James Pickford (27/4/15)
- What is meant by insolvency?
- There are many factors that might explain why the number of insolvencies has fallen. Explain the economic theory behind a lower inflation rate and why this might have contributed to fewer insolvencies.
- How might lower interest rates affect both the number of personal and corporate insolvencies?
- Why has there been a growth in the north-south divide in terms of the number of insolvencies?
- Do you think this data does suggest that lessons have been learned from the Credit Crunch?
The growth of China over the past decade has been quite phenomenal, with figures recorded in double-digits. However, in the aftermath of the recession, growth has declined to around 7% – much higher than Western economies are used to, but significantly below the ‘norm’ for China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The growth target for this year is 7.5%, but there appear to be some concerns about China’s ability to reach this figure and this has been emphasised by a recent Chinese policy.
A mini-stimulus package has been put in place, with the objective of meeting the 7.5% growth target. Government expenditure is a key component of aggregate demand and when other components of AD are lower than expected, boosting ‘G’ can be a solution. However, it’s not something that the Chinese government has had to do in recent years and the fact that this stimulus package has been put in place has brought doubts over China’s economic performance to the forefront , but has confirmed its commitment to growth. Mizuho economist, Shen Jianguang, said:
It’s very obvious that the leaders feel the need to stabilise growth…Overall, the 7.5 per cent growth target means that the government still cares a lot about economic growth.
Data suggest that growth in China is relatively weak and there are concerns that the growth target will be missed, hence the stimulus package. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there was a large stimulus package in place in China. This latest investment by the government is in no way comparable to the size of the 2008 package, but instead will be on a smaller and more specific scale. Mark Williams of Capital Economics said:
It’s a bit of a rerun of what we saw last year – something less than a stimulus package and more of piecemeal measures to ensure they reach their growth target.
It is the construction of public housing and railways that will be the main areas of investment this time round. A sum of $120–180bn per year will be available for railway construction and $161bn for social housing, and tax breaks are being extended for small businesses.
The 2008 stimulus package saw debt increase to some 200% of GDP, which did cause growing concerns about the reliance on debt. However, this latest package will be financed through the issue of bonds, which is much more similar to how market economies finance spending.
The fact that the government has had to intervene with such a stimulus package is, however, causing growing concerns about the level of debt and the future of this fast growing economy, though the new method of financing is certainly seen as progress.
It should be noted that a decline in growth for China is not only concerning for China itself, but is also likely to have adverse consequences other countries. In the increasingly interdependent world that we live in, Western countries rely on foreign consumers purchasing their exports, and in recent years it has been Chinese consumers that have been a key component of demand. However, a decline in growth may also create some benefits – resources may not be used up as quickly and prices of raw materials and oil in particular may remain lower.
It is certainly too early for alarm bells, but the future of China’s growth is less certain than it was a decade ago. The following articles consider this issue.
China’s new mini-stimulus offers signs of worry and progress BBC News, Linda Yueh (3/4/14)
China puts railways and houses at hear of new stimulus measures The Guardian (3/4/14)
China unveils mini stimulus to to boost slowing economy The Telegraph (3/4/14)
China stimulus puts new focus on growth target Wall Street Journal, Bob Davis and Michael Arnold (3/4/14)
China embarks on ‘mini’ stimulus programme to kick-start economy Independent, Russell Lynch (3/4/14)
China takes first step to steady economic growth Reuters (2/4/14)
China unveils fresh stimulus The Autstralian (3/4/14)
China’s reformers can triumph again, if they follow the right route The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (2/4/14)
- How has Chinese growth reached double-digits? Which factors are responsible for such high growth?
- The BBC News article suggests that the stimulus package is cause for concerns but also shows progress. How can it do both?
- Using a diagram, illustrate how a stimulus package can boost economic growth.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of high rates of growth for (a) China and (b) Western economies?
- Why does the method of financing growth matter?
- Railway and housing construction have been targeted to receive additional finance. Why do you think these sectors have been targeted?
Household debt in the UK has reached a record level. Individuals now owe £1430 billion. This compares with the UK’s general government debt of £1443 billion – also at a record level. These figures are illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
But these figures are nominal. If you look at the real figures (i.e. corrected for inflation), household debt has been falling. In today’s prices, household debt peaked at £1668 billion in March 2008. Also, if you look at household debt as a proportion of GDP, it fell from a peak of 100.96% in May 2009 to 87.43% in July 2013 (see chart). However, since then it has begun rising again, standing at 87.65% in October 2013.
So has household debt become less of a problem? In aggregate terms, the answer is probably yes. However, it is too early to know whether a continuing recovery in the economy will be fuelled by real debt rising again and whether the recovery will encourage people to take on higher levels of debt?
For many people, however, debt has become more and more of a problem. In other words, the aggregate figures conceal what has happened in terms of the distribution of debt. According to a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) study:
Indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts more than four times their annual income. Average debt repayments within this group amounted to nearly half their gross monthly income.
And the poorest families, often with very poor credit ratings, are frequently forced to turn to payday lenders, charging sky-high interest rates (see Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?).
As mainstream banks reduced access to credit following the financial crash, the market for short-term high-cost credit (payday lenders, pawnbrokers, rent-to-buy and doorstop lenders) increased dramatically and is now worth £4.8 billion a year.
Payday lenders have increased business from £900 million in 2008/09 to just over £2 billion (or around 8 million loans) in 2011/12. Around half of payday loan customers reported taking out the money because it was the only form of credit they could get. The number of people going to loan sharks is also said to have increased – the most recent estimate puts it at 310,000 people.
With rising energy and food bills hitting the poorest hardest, this section of the population could find debt levels continuing to rise, especially if interest rates rise. As Chris Pond, who chaired the CJS study, stated:
The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ The Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
UK debt crisis: poorest face ‘perfect storm’ Channel 4 News (20/11/13)
One in five struggle with serious debt The Telegraph, Nicole Blackmore (27/11/13)
It doesn’t matter what we do with Wonga: personal debt is about to rocket The Telegraph, Tim Wigmore (26/11/13)
Poorest families ‘need more help over debt’ BBC News (20/11/13)
More than 5,000 people a year ‘homeless’ as household debt crisis deepens, CSJ warns Centre for Social Justice Press Release (20/11/13)
Monthly amounts outstanding of total (excluding the Student Loans Company) sterling net lending to individuals and housing associations (in sterling millions) seasonally adjusted Bank of England
Public Sector Finances First Release – Public Sector Consolidated Gross Debt ONS
Household debt (Economics Indicators update) House of Commons Library (29/11/13)
- What are the macroeconomic implications of rising levels of household debt?
- Why may an economy which has high levels of household debt be more subject to cyclical fluctuations in real GDP?
- What are the problems of having a recovery driven largely by increased consumer expenditure?
- Why have many people in the poorest sectors of society found their debt levels rising the fastest?
- Why may rising levels of debt of the most vulnerable people make it harder for the Bank of England to use conventional monetary policy if recovery becomes established?
- What policies could be pursued to try to reduce the debts of the poorest people?
- Discuss the effectiveness of these various policies.
There’s some good news and some bad news about the UK economy. The good news is that there are signs that the recovery is gathering momentum; the ‘green shoots’ are growing bigger. The bad news is that it’s the ‘wrong type of growth’!
One of the main underlying problems of the 2008 financial crisis was that household debt had been increasing to unsustainable levels, egged on by banks only too willing to lend, whether as personal loans, on credit cards or through mortgages. When the recession hit, many people sought to reduce their debts by cutting back on spending. This further fuelled the recession.
What the government and most economists hoped was that there would be some rebalancing of the economy, with less reliance on consumer spending to drive economic growth. Instead it was hoped that growth would be driven by a rise in investment and exports. Indeed, the 25% depreciation of sterling exchange between 2007 and 2009 was seen as a major advantage as this would boost the demand for exports and encourage firms to invest in the export sector.
But things haven’t turned out the way people hoped. The recession (or lack of growth) has been much deeper and more prolonged than previous downturns in the economy. Today, real GDP per head is more than 7% below the level in 2007 and many people have seen much bigger declines in their living standards.
But also, despite the austerity policies, the economy has not been ‘rebalanced’ towards exports and investment. Exports are 3% lower than in 2006 (although they did grow between 2009 Q2 and 2011 Q1, but have since stagnated). And investment is 27% lower than in 2006. Household consumption, however, has grown by about 2% and general government consumption by around 9% since 2006. The chart shows the figures, based on 2006 Q1 = 100.
(Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
And recent evidence is that consumption is beginning to grow faster – not because of rising household incomes, but because of falling saving rates. In 2008, the household saving ratio had fallen to nearly 0% (i.e. households were on average saving about the same as they were borrowing). Then the saving ratio rose dramatically as people reined in their spending. Between 2009 and 2012, the ratio hovered around 7%. But in the first quarter of 2013, it had fallen to 4.2%
So the good news is that aggregate demand is rising, boosting economic growth. But the bad news is that, at least for the time being, this growth is being driven by a rise in household borrowing and a fall in household saving. The videos and articles consider whether this is, however, still good news on balance.
Britain’s imbalanced economy The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes and Richard Davies (4/7/13)
Britain’s Export Drought: an enduring disappointment The Economist, Andrew Palmer and Richard Davies (9/2/13)
‘Green shoots’ of economic recovery in Rugby BBC News, Paul Mason (12/6/13)
Is the UK economy seeing the ‘wrong kind’ of green shoots? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (3/7/13)
The export drought: Better out than in The Economist (9/2/13)
Exports and the economy: Made in Britain The Economist (21/1/12)
The economy: On a wing and a credit card The Economist (6/7/13)
Unbalanced and unsustainable – this is the wrong kind of growth The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (8/7/13)
The UK economy’s looking up – but no one’s told manufacturers The Guardian, Heather Stewart (10/7/13)
Quarterly National Accounts, Q1 2013 (27/6/13)
Forecasts for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts HM Treasury (June 2013)
ISM Manufacturing Report on Business® PMI History Institute for Supply Management
- What are forecasters expecting to happen to economic growth in the coming months? Why?
- What factors determine investment? Why has it fallen so substantially in the UK?
- Explain what is meant by the ‘accelerator’. Is the rise in consumption likely to lead to an accelerator effect and, if so, what will determine the size of this effect?
- Why have exports not grown more rapidly despite the depreciation of sterling after 2007?
- What will determine the rate of potential economic growth in the UK economy? How will a rise in real GDP driven by a rise in consumption impact on potential GDP and potential economic growth?
- What supply-side policies would you recommend, and why, in order to increase potential economic growth?