The Christmas and new year period often draws attention to the financial well-being of households. An important determinant of this is the extent of their indebtedness. Rising levels of debt mean that increasing amounts of households’ incomes becomes prey to servicing debt through repayments and interest charges. They can also result in more people becoming credit constrained, unable to access further credit. Rising debt levels can therefore lead to a deterioration of financial well-being and to financial distress. This was illustrated starkly by events at the end of the 2000s.
The total amount of lending by monetary financial institutions to individuals outstanding at the end of October 2018 was estimated at £1.61 trillion. As Chart 1 shows, this has grown from £408 billion in 1994. Hence, indivduals in the UK have experience a four-fold increase in the levels of debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The debt of individuals is either secured or unsecured. Secured debt is debt secured by property, which for individuals is more commonly referred to as mortgage debt. Unsecured debt, which is also known as consumer credit, includes outstanding debt on credit cards, overdrafts on current accounts and loans for luxury items such as cars and electrical goods. The composition of debt in 2018 is unchanged from that in 1994: 87 per cent is secured debt and 13 per cent unsecured debt.
The fourfold increase in debt is taken by some economists as evidence of financialisation. While this term is frequently defined in distinctive ways depending upon the content in which it is applied, when viewed in very general terms it describes a process by which financial institutions and markets become increasingly important in everyday lives and so in the production and consumption choices that economists study. An implication of this is that in understanding economic decisions, behaviour and outcomes it becomes increasingly important to think about the potential impact of the financial system. The financial crisis is testimony to this.
In thinking about financial well-being, at least at an aggregate level, we can look at the relative size of indebtedness. One way of doing this is to measure the stock of individual debt relative to the annual flow of GDP (national income). This is illustrated in Chart 2. (Click hereto download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The growth in debt among individuals owed to financial institutions during the 2000s was significant. By the end of 2007, the debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 88 per cent. Decomposing this, the secured debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 75 per cent and the unsecured debt-to-GDP ratio 13 per cent. Compare this with the end of 1994 when secured debt was 46 per cent of GDP, unsecured debt 7 per cent and total debt 53 per cent. In other words, the period between 1994 and 2007 the UK saw a 25 percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio of individuals.
The early 2010s saw a consolidation in the size of the debt (see Chart 1) which meant that it was not until 2014 that debt levels rose above those of 2008. This led to the size of debt relative to GDP falling back by close to 10 percentage points (see Chart 2). Between 2014 and 2018 the stock of debt has increased from around £1.4 trillion to the current level of £1.61 trillion. This increase has been matched by a similar increase in (nominal) GDP so that the relative stock of debt remains little changed at present at around 76 per cent of GDP.
Chart 3 shows the annual growth rate of net lending (lending net of repayments) by monetary financial institutions to individuals. This essentially captures the growth rate in the stocks of debt, though changes in the actual stock of debt are also be affected by the writing-off of debts. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
We can see quite readily the pick up in lending from 2014. The average annual rate of growth in total net lending since 2014 has been just a little under 3½ per cent. This has been driven by unsecured lending whose growth rate has been close to 8½ per cent per annum, compared to just 2.7 per cent for secured lending. In 2016 the annual growth rate of unsecured lending was just shy of 11 per cent. This helped to fuel concerns about possible future financial distress. These concerns remain despite the annual rate of growth in unsecured debt having eased slightly to 7.5 per cent.
Despite the aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio having been relatively stable of late, the recent growth in debt levels is clearly not without concern. It has to be viewed in the context of two important developments. First, there remains a ‘debt hangover’ from the financial distress experienced by the private sector at the end of the 2000s, which itself contributed to a significant decline in economic activity (real GDP fell by 4 per cent in 2009). This subequently affected the financial well-being of the public sector following its interventions to cushion the economy from the full effects of the economic downturn as well as to help stabilise the financial system. Second, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union.
The financial resilience of all sectors of the economy is therefore of acute concern given the unprecedented uncertainty we are currently facing while, at the same time, we are still feeling the effects of the financial distress from the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It therefore seems timely indeed for individuals to take stock of their stocks of debt.
- How might we measure the financial distress of individuals?
- If individuals are financially distressed how might this affect their consumption behaviour?
- How might credit constraints affect the relationship between consumption and income?
- What do you understand by the concept of ‘cash flow effects’ that arise from interest rate changes?
- How might the accumulation of secured and unsecured debt have different effects on consumer spending?
- What factors might explain the rate of accumulation of debt by individuals?
- What is meant by ‘financial resilience’ and why might this currently be of particular concern?
The latest data in the Quarterly National Accounts show that UK households in 2015 spent £1.152 trillion, the equivalent of 62 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In real terms, household spending rose by 2.8 per cent in 2015 in excess of the 2.3 per cent growth observed in GDP. In the final quarter of 2015 real household spending rose by 0.6 per – the same rate of growth as that recorded for the UK economy. This was the tenth consecutive quarter of positive consumption growth and the twelfth of economic growth.
It is the consistent growth seen over the recent past in real household spending that marks it out from the other components of aggregate demand. Consequently, household spending remains the bedrock of UK growth.
Chart 1 helps to evidence the close relationship between consumption and economic growth. It picks out nicely the stark turnaround both in economic growth and consumer spending following the financial crisis. Over the period from 2008 Q1 to 2011 Q2, real consumer spending typically fell by 0.4 per cent each quarter. This weakness in consumption was mirrored by economic growth. Real GDP contracted over this period by an average of 0.2 per cent each quarter. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Since 2011 Q3 real consumption growth has averaged 0.6 per cent per quarter – the rate at which consumption grew in 2015 Q4 – while, real GDP growth has averaged 0.5 per cent per quarter. Over this same period the real disposable income (post-tax income) of the combined household and NPISH (non-profit institutions serving households), has typically grown by 0.4 per cent per quarter. (NPISHs are charities and voluntary organisations.)
The strength of consumption relative to income is evidenced by the decline in the saving ratio as can be observed in Chart 2. The ratio captures the percentage of disposable income that households (and NPISHs) choose to save. In 2010 Q3 the proportion of income saved hit 11.9 per cent having been as low as 4.5 per cent in 2008 Q1. By 2015 Q4 the saving ratio had fallen to 3.8 per cent, the lowest value since the series began in 1963 Q1. (Click here to download a PowerPoint.)
The historic low in the saving ratio in the final quarter of 2015 reflects the strength of consumption alongside a sharp fall in real disposable income of 0.6 per cent in the quarter. However, the bigger picture shows a marked downward trend in the saving ratio over the period from 2012.
When seen in a more historic context the latest numbers taken on even greater significance. Chart 3 shows the annual saving ratio since 1963. From it we can see that the 2015 value of 4.2 was the first year when the ratio fell below 5 per cent. With 2014 being the previous historic low, there must be some concern that UK consumption growth is not being underpinned by income growth. (Click here to download a PowerPoint.)
Of course, consumption theory places great emphasis on expected future income in determining current spending. To some extent it may be argued that households were liquidity-constrained following the financial crisis. They were unable to borrow to support spending and, as time moved on, to borrow against the expectation of stronger income growth in the future. This would have depressed consumption growth. But, there may also have been a self-imposed liquidity constraint as the financial crisis unfolded. Heightened uncertainty may have led households to be more prudent and divert resources to saving. Such precautionary saving would tend to boost the saving ratio and so may be a factor in the sharp rise we observed in the ratio.
The easing of credit constraints as we headed through the early 2010s allied with stronger economic growth may help to explain the strength of the recovery in consumption growth. However, it is the extent and, in particular, the duration of this strong consumption growth that is fuelling a debate over its sustainability. The current uncertainty around future income growth and the need for households to be mindful of the indebtedness built up prior to the financial crisis point to households needing to retain a degree of caution. Consequently, the debates around the financial well-being of households and the need to rebalance the UK economy away from consumer spending are likely to be further intensified by the latest consumption and saving data.
All data related to Quarterly National Accounts: Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2015 Office for National Statistics
Office for National Statistics Office for National Statistics
Britons raid savings to fund spending as economists warn recovery ‘built on sand’ Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (31/3/16)
UK Growth Higher But Deficit Hits New Record Sky News, (31/3/16)
Britain is a nation that has forgotten how to save Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (31/3/16)
A vulnerable economy: the true cost of Britain’s current account deficit Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/3/16)
U.K. Manufacturing ‘In the Doldrums’ Leaves Growth Lopsided Bloomberg, Emma Charlton (1/4/16)
Pound drops as UK manufacturing languishes in the doldrums Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (1/4/16)
- Why is the distinction between nominal and real growth an important one when looking at many macroeconomic variables.
- Examine the argument that the historic low saving ratio in the UK is a cause for concern.
- What factors might we expect to impact on the saving ratio?
- To what extent do you think the current growth in consumer spending is sustainable?
- How important are expectations in determining consumer behaviour?
- Explain what you understand by consumption smoothing.
- Why would we would typically expect consumption growth to be less variable than that in disposable income?
- Why might consumption sometimes be observed to be less sensitive or more sensitive to income changes?
- What factors might cause households to be liquidity constrained?
- What is precautionary saving? What might affect its perceived importance among households?
In a statement to the House of Commons on 9 February 2011, the Chancellor announced that banks would extend their new lending to SMEs (Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises) from £179 billion in 2010 to £190 billion in 2011. An important question is the extent to which this initiative, which forms part of a series of initiatives in conjunction with the banking sector known as Project Merlin, will impact on economic activity.
Let’s begin by thinking about the role that credit plays in an economy. Firstly, it serves a short-term role by enabling individuals and firms to ‘bridge the gap’ between their income and their spending. Secondly, it can, depending on the size and terms of the credit, help to fund longer-term investments. In the case of firms, for instance, it can help to fund capital projects such as an expansion of premises or the installation of new equipment or production processes.
The extension of credit is the main source of growth in the money supply. If the credit which is extended by financial institutions is spent it increases economic activity. The size of the increase in economic activity will depend on how many times the credit is passed on from one firm or individual to the next. In other words, it depends on the velocity of circulation of money – often referred to simply as V. If the initial credit funds a series of purchases and the recipients of these monies, i.e. those from whom the purchases are made, then use their increased deposits to fund purchases themselves, the expansion could be sizeable.
There is every indication that the additional credit for SMEs will be welcome and it seems reasonable to assume that this will positively impact on spending. But, by how much is not entirely clear. This is what fascinates me about macroeconomics, but, perhaps understandably, may well frustrate others! Once the payments for the purchases made using the newly available credit become new deposits, how will these recipients respond? Will other credit-constrained firms use this liquidity to engage in purchases themselves? But, what if these recipients use the monies to increase or rebuild their own financial wealth? In this last scenario – a pessimistic scenario – the velocity of circulation will increase relatively little and economic activity little too.
The corporate sector, of course, does not exist in isolation of other sectors of the economy and, in particular, of the household sector. As some of the income from the expanded credit flows to them in the form of factor payments (i.e. wages and profits) – though by how much is itself debtable – how will they respond? Again will credit-constrained households look to spend? Alternatively, will they hold on to these liquid balances perhaps using them as buffer-stock savings? This is not an unrealistic possibility given the leverage of households and the need to rebuild wealth, especially so in times of incredible economic uncertainty? But, who knows!
So while Merlin may have waved his wand, the full extent of its impact, though probably positive, is far from clear. Time will tell. Isn’t macroeconomics wonderful!
HM Treasury Press Release
Government welcomes banks’ statement on lending by 15% more to SMEs, and on pay and support for regional growth, HM Treasury, 9 February 2011
Statement to the House of Commons by the Chancellor
Statement on banking by the Chancellor of the Exchequer 9 February 2011
Banks sign lending and bonus deal BBC News (9/2/11)
Banks agree Project Merlin lending and bonus deal BBC News (9/2/11)
Osborne’s plans arrive too late for the economy Independent, Sean O’Grady (11/2/11)
Project Merlin ‘could weaken UK banks’ Telegraph, Harry Wilson (11/2/11)
Nothing wizard about Project Merlin Guardian UK, Nils Pratley (7/2/11)
Softball: Britain’s banks make peace with the government – for now The Economist (10/2/11)
Smaller firms insist banks must change their attitude The Herald (11/2/11)
- Detail the various roles that financial institutions play in a modern-day economy.
- Do the activities of banks carry with them any risks? How might such risks be reduced?
- What is meant by the velocity of circulation or the velocity of money?
- What factors do you think could affect the velocity of money?
- How does credit creation affect the growth of the money supply?
- What do you understand by individuals or firms being credit-constrained?
- What factors are likely to affect how credit-constrained an individual household is?
- What do you think might be meant by buffer-stock saving? What might affect the size of the buffer-stock held by a household?