The OBR are forecasting that household spending will fall in real terms in 2011 by 1.1 per cent and grow by only 0.2 per cent in 2012. This is not good news for retailers nor, of course, for the economy. The drag on consumer spending growth is largely attributed to expected falls in real disposable (after-tax) incomes in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the household sector’s real income is forecast to decline by 2.3 per cent and then by a further 0.3 per cent in 2012.
The OBR’s figures on spending growth critically depend on the ability of households to absorb the negative shock to their real income. Empirical evidence tends to show that household spending growth is less variable than that in income and that households try and smooth, if they can, their spending. This means that the marginal propensity of households to consume out of changes to their income is below 1 in the short-run. In fact, the shorter the period of time over which we analyse income and consumption changes the smaller the consumption responses become. This is consistent with the idea that households are consumption-smoothers disliking excessively volatile spending patterns. In other words, the size of our monthly shop will usually vary less than any changes in our real income.
Of course, consumption-smoothing cannot be taken for granted. Households need the means to be able to smooth their spending given volatile and, in the current context, declining real incomes. Some economic theorists point to the importance of the financial system in enabling households to smooth their spending. In effect, households move their resources across time so that their current spending is not constrained solely by the income available to them in the current time period. This could mean in the face of falling real income perhaps borrowing against future incomes (moving forward in time expected incomes) or drawing down past savings.
The ability of households to move future incomes forward to the present has probably been impaired by the financial crisis. Banks are inevitably less cautious in their lending and therefore households are unable to borrow as much and so consume large amounts of future income today. In other words, households are credit-constrained. Furthermore, it is likely that households are somewhat uneasy about borrowing in the current climate, certainly any substantial amounts. Uncertainty tends to increase the stock of net worth a household would like to hold. A household’s net worth is the value of its stock of physical assets (largely housing wealth) and financial assets (savings) less its financial liabilities (debt). If households feel the need for a larger buffer stock of wealth to act as a sort of security blanket, they will not rush to acquire more debt (even if they could) or to draw down their savings.
The impairment of the financial system and the need for a buffer stock are two impediments to households smoothing their spending. They tend to make consumption more sensitive to income changes and so with falling incomes make it more likely that consumption will fall too. There are other related concerns too about the ability and willingness of consumers to smooth spending. Uncertainty arising from the volatility of the financial markets imposes liquidity constraints because households become less sure about the value of those savings products linked to the performance of equity markets. Consequently, they become less certain about the money (liquidity) that could be raised by cashing-in such products and so are more cautious about spending. Similarly, the falls in house prices have reduced the ability of households to extract housing equity to support spending. Indeed, with fewer transactions in the housing market the household sector is extracting less housing equity because it has been quite common, at least in the past, for households to over-borrow when moving and use the excess money borrowed to fund spending.
In short, there are many reasons to be cautious about the prospects for household spending. The expected decline in real income again in 2012 will ‘hit’ consumer spending. The question is how big this ‘hit’ will be and crucially on the extent to which households will be able to absorb it and keep spending.
Some numbers are a newspaper editor’s dream! One such number this week was -3.6%. This was the fall in house prices in September reported by the Halifax (part of the Lloyds Banking Group). This certainly helped to alert a large audience to the downward momentum in house price growth that has been underway since about the start of the summer. While the Nationwide Building Society reported a 0.1% rise in September it is significant that both Halifax and Nationwide estimate that across the three months to September house prices actually fell by around 0.9%. In other words, the average UK house price fell by 0.9% in the third quarter of the year.
The annual rate of house price inflation, as the name suggests, compares house prices with the same point in time a year ago. The impact of the house price falls in the third quarter has been to reduce the annual rate of house price inflation to around the 3% mark. While the annual rate is still in positive territory, an obvious concern is how long this will be the case. Well, we can expect the annual rate to fall further because the UK saw strong house price growth in the final quarter of 2009 – the Nationwide estimates this to have been 2.2%. If I (Dean) was to throw my hat in the ring and hazard a guess as to the annual rate of house price inflation in the final quarter of 2010, I’d be inclined to say that it would be around the zero mark. If my crystal ball is found to be right, it would mean that house prices will end 2010 no higher than they finished 2009.
Now this is going to surprise you, but there has been considerable agreement amongst economists as to the reasons behind the recent house price falls. In short, it has been shifts in housing demand and supply. The evidence, such as that from estate agents, points to increases in houses prices during the second half of 2009 and the early part of this year as having induced additional housing supply. This means that estate agents saw instructions to sell increase strongly. People felt a little more confident about putting their property on the market and there was also a recovery in the volumes of new homes constructed.
So far, so good, you might think. But, as this year has moved on growing uncertainty about the economic environment and the on-going difficulties facing many potential buyers, especially first-time buyers, in obtaining mortgage credit, has contributed to a weakening of demand. The impact on the number of potential first-time buyers has been particularly acute because, by being increasingly credit-constrained, they have in effect become increasingly deposit-constrained too. The point is that buyers, especially first-time buyers, are being asked to find relatively large deposits to compensate for limited mortgage credit and both their limited ability and willingness to find these deposits is impacting on housing demand. So with a weakening demand we have been left with what Rightmove describes as a ‘supply hangover’. The effect has been for prices to fall.
It is a feature of housing markets that demand–supply imbalances induce considerable volatility in house prices. Going forward, it will continue to be the relative magnitudes of instructions to buy (housing demand) and of instructions to sell (housing supply) that will determine the path of house prices. Just how imbalanced will those estate agents books remain? How long will the supply hangover persist? Could supply increase further as people rush to sell and thereby further destabilising the market? Or will sellers begin taking property off the market, deciding that now is not the time to sell? Questions like these help to show just how real and how exciting the concepts of demand and supply are. Demand and supply are not concepts confined to the pages of textbooks they are alive and at work. The UK housing market demonstrates just how alive they are!
House prices record worst monthly fall ever Independent, Alistair Dawber (8/10/10)
Regions slip behind in bleak housing market Financial Times, Norma Cohen (8/10/10)
What next for house prices? Telegraph, Kara Gammell (8/10/10)
Fears grow for new market crash as house prices plummet Daily Record, Holly Williams (8/10/10)
Property price plunge blamed on need to sell The Herald, Helen McArdle (8/10/10)
Housing market crash feared after average house prices take record plunge Guardian, Jill Treanor (7/10/10)
UK house prices fell 3.6% in September, Halifax says BBC News (7/10/10)
Halifax House Price Index Halifax (part of the Lloyds Banking Group)
Nationwide House Price Index Nationwide Building Society
Rightmove House Price Index Rightmove
Live Tables on Housing Market and House Prices Department of Communities and Local Government
- 2010 has been a year of contrasting fortunes for house prices. See if by using a demand and supply diagram you can illustrate the impact of demand and supply shifts on house prices in the first half of the year and then do the same again for more recent months.
- What do Rightmove mean by a ‘supply hangover’? What factors do you think will determine whether this effect persists?
- You become an estate agent. You buy 2 big books. One is to be used to record instructions to buy and the other instructions to sell. You have a meeting with your staff where you discuss those factors that you think will determine how full these two books will be from period to period. What factors do you think you are likely to identify? What impact would one book being fuller than the other have on house prices?
- Explain what we mean by a potential house buyer being credit-constrained. What is meant by a potential buyer being deposit-constrained? Why might first-time buyers be more deposit-constrained than other types of buyers?
- You often hear people talk about the housing market. But, what do we mean by a market? And what do we mean by a housing market? Do prices in all housing markets behave in the same way?
- We’ve seen that there are several institutions that publish an average house price figure. How do you think the likes of Halifax and Nationwide do this? What of Rightmove? Are there any other ways of estimating the average house price? Can you think of any problems that might arise with these estimates?
- It’s now your time for you to dust-off your crystal ball. Imagine that you are employed to write a monthly commentary on UK house prices. What would you expect to be reporting in the coming months?