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.
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?