To what extent does history repeat itself? Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis infers that credit cycles are fairly inevitable. We have seem them in the past and we will see them in the future. Human beings are subject to emotion, to irrational exuberance and to a large dose of forgetfulness! To what extent do the latest UK credit numbers suggest that we might be embarking on another credit binge? Are the credit data consistent with evidence of another credit cycle?
Chart 1 shows the stocks of debt acquired by households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions). The scale of debt accumulation in the late 1980s and again from the mid 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s is stark. At the start of 1985 the UK household sector had debts to MFIs of around £140 billion. By the start of 2009 this had hit £1.29 trillion. Meanwhile, private non-financial corporations saw their debts to MFIs rise from around £45 billion to over £500 billion. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The path of debt at the start of the 2010s is consistent with a story of consolidation. Financially-distressed households, private non-financial corporations and, of course, MFIs themselves meant that corrective action was needed to repair their balance sheets. The demand for and supply of additional credit waned. Debt accumulation largely ceased and, in fact, debt numbers fell. This trend continues today for private non-financial corporations. But, for households debt accumulation resumed in the middle of 2013. At the end of the third quarter of 2015 the household sector had debt obligations to MFIs of £1.246 trillion.
Chart 2 focuses on flows rather stocks. It allows us to see the accumulation of new credit (i.e. less repayments of debt). What is even more apparent from this chart is the evidence of cycles in credit. The growth in new credit during the 2000s is stark as is the subsequent squeeze on credit that followed.
The question that follows is what path are we now on? Clearly flows of credit to households are again on the rise. In part, this is driven by the rebound in the UK housing market. But, in fact there is a more rapid increase in consumer credit, i.e. unsecured debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Chart 3 shows the flows of consumer credit from MFIs and other credit providers. Again, we see the marked evidence of cycles. In the year to the end of Q1 of 2015 net consumer credit flows amounted to £22.8 billion, the highest figure since the 12-month period up to the end of Q3 of 2005. Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
While it might be a little early to say that another Minsky cycle is well under way, policymakers will be keeping a keen eye on credit patterns. Is history repeating itself?
Consumer spending is crucial to an economy. In the UK total consumer spending is equivalent to almost two-thirds of the value of country’s GDP. Understanding its determinants is therefore crucial in attempting to forecast the short-term path of the economy. In other words, the growth of the economy in 2013 will depend on our inclination to spend.
While the amount of disposable income (post-tax income) will be one factor influencing our spending, other factors matter too. Amongst these ‘other factors’ is the stock of wealth of households. Here we look at the latest available figures on the net worth of the UK household sector. Will our stock of wealth help to underpin spending or will it act to constrain spending?
The household sector’s net worth is the sum of its net financial wealth and non-financial (physical) wealth. Net financial wealth is the balance of financial assets over financial liabilities. Financial assets include funds in savings accounts, shares and pension funds. Financial liabilities include debts secured against property, largely residential mortgages, and unsecured debts, such as overdrafts and unpaid balances on credit cards. Non-financial wealth largely includes the value of the sector’s holdings of property and buildings.
The following table summarises the net worth of the UK household sector at the end of 2011 and 2010. The figures are taken from the Office for National Statistics release, National Balance Sheet. They show that at the end of 2011, the household sector had a net worth of £7.04 trillion. This was up just 0.1 per cent up 2010. At the end of 2011, the stock of net worth of the household sector was 7 times the amount of disposable income earned by the sector in 2011.
We can also see from the table the significance of the value of non-financial assets to net worth. The value of households’ physical wealth is slightly larger than the value of its financial assets, though in 2011 both equate to around 4¼ times the annual flow of disposable income.
2011 saw the value of the stock of non-financial wealth grow by 0.7 per cent while the value of the sector’s stock of financial assets fell by 0.4 per cent. Meanwhile, the value of the stock of financial liabilities was virtually unchanged at a little over £1½ trillion. In 2011, the sector’s financial liabilities were equivalent to around 1½ times its annual disposable income. While this is down from the 2007 peak of 1¾ times income, it is considerably higher than during the period from 1987 to 1999 when the financial liabilities to income ratio remained consistently close to 1. The 2000s saw a rapid expansion of the sector’s liabilities relative to its income and, hence, today there remains what economists call a debt overhang.
Despite the very small overall increase in net worth in 2011, the stock of net wealth was up by 18 per cent on 2008. During 2008, net worth fell by 12 per cent. This was on the back of a fall in non-financial wealth of 9.4 per cent, a fall in the value of financial assets of 10.1 per cent and an increase in the value of financial liabilities of 1.9 per cent.
Chart 1 gives an historical picture of net worth. It shows the two principal balances that comprise net worth: net financial wealth and physical wealth. Each is shown relative to annual disposable income. Again, we can see the importance of physical wealth to overall net worth. The growth in house prices from the late 1990s through to the economic downturn of the late 2000s helps to explain its rising relative importance in net worth. We can also see from the chart that the relative level of net worth is roughly on a par with its value at the end of the 1990s. However, the composition is different. Today, relatively more of the sector’s net worth comes from non-financial wealth compared with that from net financial wealth.
A crucial question for spending in the months ahead is how inclined the household sector feels to consolidate its balance sheets further. Chart 2 includes more recently available data on financial assets and liabilities from United Kingdom Economic Accounts, Q3 2012. From it we can see the declining stock of financial liabilities relative to disposable income. This has been driven by an actual fall in the stock of unsecured financial liabilities. In the 12-month period up to the end of Q3 2012, the stock of unsecured financial liabilities fell by 6.4 per cent (the stock of secured debt rose by 1.8 per cent). This consolidation of unsecured debt suggests that households remain understandably cautious given the uncertain economic environment. Hence, the household balance sheet will most probably continue to constrain consumption growth in the short-term.
Each month the Bank of England releases figures on the amount of net lending to households. Net lending measures the additional amount of debt acquired by households in the month and so takes into account the amount of debt that households repay over the month. For some time now, the levels of net lending have been remarkably low. Over the first quarter of 2011, monthly net lending to households averaged £1.2 billion. This might sound like a lot of money and in many ways this is true. But, to put the weakness of this figure into perspective, the monthly average over the past ten years is £7 billion.
Household debt can be categorised as either secured debt or unsecured debt. The former is mortgage debt while the latter includes outstanding amounts due on credit and store cards, overdrafts and personal loans. Levels of net secured lending have averaged £1 billion per month over the first 3 months of 2011. This compares with a 10-year average of £5.8 billion per month. Levels of net unsecured lending have averaged £196 million per month over the first 3 months of 2011. This compares with a 10-year average of £1.2 billion per month. In 12 of the months between December 2008 and January 2011 net unsecured lending was actually negative. This means that the value of repayments was greater than new unsecured lending. Once bad debts are taken into account we observe from the autumn of 2008 almost persistent monthly falls in the stock of unsecured debt.
Weak levels of net lending reflect two significant factors. First, on the supply-side, lending levels remain constrained and credit criteria tight. Second, on the demand-side, households remain anxious during these incredibly uncertain times and would appear to have a very limited appetite for taking on additional credit.
Finally, a note on the stock of debt that we households collectively hold. The stock of household debt at the end of March 2011 was £1.45 trillion. This is £7.2 billion or 0.5% lower than in March 2010. The stock of secured debt has risen over this period by only £2.6 billion or 0.2%, while unsecured debt – also known as consumer credit – has fallen £9.9 billion or 4.5%. These figures help to reinforce the message that British households continue to consolidate their financial positions.
What will happen to interest rates over the next two or three years? There is considerable disagreement between economists on this question at the moment.
There are those who argue that recovery in the UK, the USA and Europe is faltering. With much tighter fiscal policy being adopted as countries attempt to claw down their deficits, there is a growing fear of a double-dip recession. In these circumstances central banks are likely to keep interest rates at their historically low levels for the foreseeable future and could well embark on a further round of quantitative easing (see Easy money from the Fed?). But what about inflation? With demand still expanding in developing countries and commodity prices rising, won’t cost pressures on inflation continue? Those who forecast that interest rates will stay low, argue that the pressure on commodity prices will ease as global demand slows. Also, in the UK, now that sterling is no longer depreciating, this will remove a key ingredient of higher inflation.
These views are not shared by other economists. They argue that interest rates could soar over the next two years. In fact, one economist, Andrew Lilico, the Chief Economist at Policy Exchange argues that interest rates in the UK will reach 8% by 2012. Central to their argument is the role of the money supply. The monetary base has been expanded enormously through programmes of quantitative easing. And yet, consumer credit has fallen. When the economy does eventually start to recover strongly, Lilico and others argue that there is a danger that consumer credit and broad money will expand rapidly, thereby fuelling inflation. But won’t the spare capacity that has built up during the recession allow the increase in aggregate demand to be met by a corresponding increase in output, thereby keeping inflation low. No, say these economists. A lot of capacity has been lost and output cannot easily expand to meet a rise in demand.
It’s not uncommon for economists to disagree! See, by reading the articles below, if you can unpick the arguments and establish where the disagreements lie and whose case is the strongest.
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!