A key determinant of our economy’s rate of growth over the year ahead is likely to be the behaviour of households and, in particular, the rate of growth in consumer (or household) spending. In other words, your appetite for spending will help to determine how quickly the economy grows. The importance of household spending for the economy is straightforward to understand given that it accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total demand for firms’ goods and services, i.e. two-thirds of aggregate demand. In its November 2011 Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Office for Budget Responsibility presents it forecasts for economic growth and household spending. The following table summarises these forecasts.
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.
What do you understand by a consumption function? What variables would you include in such a function?
Using the figures in the table in the text above, calculate ‘rough’ estimates of the income elasticity of consumption for each year. Why are these estimates only ‘rough’ approximations of the income elasticity of consumer spending?
Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect the strength of consumer spending in 2012. Explain how similar or different these factors are likely to have been to those that may affect spending during periods of strong economic growth.
Explain what you understand by the term consumption-smoothing. Explore how households can smooth their spending and the factors that are likely to both help and prevent them from doing so.
What do you understand by the net worth of housholds? Try drawing up a list of factors that could affect the net worth of households and then analyse how they might affect consumer spending.
Just how large is the UK economy and how rapidly is it growing? These were questions we asked, back at the turn of the year, in Getting real with GDP when reviewing economic data for the third quarter of 2010. We update this blog in light of the latest Quarterly National Accounts release from the Office for National Statistics.
The latest Quarterly National Accounts release estimates the value of our economy’s output during Q1 of 2011 at £375.3 million. When measured across the latest four quarters, i.e. from the start of Q2 2010 to the end of Q1 2011, the total value of our economy’s output was £1.472 trillion. Across calendar year 2010 the UK’s GDP is estimated to have been £1.455 trillion.
When analysed in terms of the total expenditure on the goods and services produced in the latest four quarters, household final consumption contributed £931 billion of Gross Domestic Product. In other words, household expenditure over these four quarters was equivalent to 63% of GDP, almost exactly in line with its average since 1948. This demonstrates the importance of spending by households for short-term economic growth. Households help to shape the business cycle.
Another important expenditure-component of GDP is gross capital formation. This is capital expenditure by the private and public sector and is estimated to have been £219.6 billion over the latest four quarters, equivalent to 15% of GDP. As well as affecting current levels of GDP, gross capital formation also affects our economy’s potential output. In other words, changes in capital expenditure can impact both on the demand-side and the supply-side of the economy. Interestingly, the long-term average share for gross capital formation in GDP is around 18% and so about 3 percentage points higher than is currently the case.
So far we have looked at the level of economic activity measured at current prices. But, what about the rate at which the economy is growing? When analysing the rate of economic growth economists look at GDP at constant prices. By doing this economists can infer whether the volume of output has increased. This is important because in the presence of price rises, an increase in the value of output could occur even if the volume of output remained unchanged or actually fell. For instance, in 1974 the volume of output or real GDP fell by 1.3%, but because the average price of our domestic output – the GDP deflator – rose by 14.9%, GDP measured at current prices rose by nearly 13.4%.
The latest ONS figures show that in the first quarter of 2011 real GDP grew by 0.5% (nominal GDP grew by 1.7%). This follows a 0.5% fall in real GDP the final quarter of 2010 (nominal GDP grew by 1.2%). Compared with Q1 2010, the volume of output of the UK economy in Q1 2011 is estimated to have grown by 1.6%.
Exports were the fastest growing component of aggregate demand in Q1, rising in real terms by 2.4%, while import volumes decreased by 2.4%. Export volumes in Q1 were 9.3% higher than a year earlier. In contrast, capital expenditures contracted sharply in the first quarter, falling by 4.2%. This follows on the back of a 0.6% fall in the final quarter of last year. This has reversed much of the strong capital expenditure growth seen during the earlier part of 2010.
We finish by looking at the growth in household spending. In the first quarter of the year real household spending fell by 0.6%. This follows a 0.2 fall in Q4 2010 and zero growth in Q3 2010. This helps to explain some of the difficulties that particular retailers have faced of late. Some context to these disappointing consumption numbers is provided by patterns in household sector disposable income. The sector’s disposable income fell by 0.8% in Q1 2011 which follows on from a 0.9% fall in the last quarter of last year. The result of this is that the household sector’s real disposable income in Q1 2011 was 2.7% lower than in Q1 2010. This was the fastest annual rate of decline since the third quarter of 1977.
What do you understand by the terms nominal GDP and real GDP?
Can you think of any other contexts in which we might wish to distinguish between nominal and real changes?
The following are the estimates of GDP at constant 2006 prices: Q1 2011= £330.724bn, Q4 2010= £329.189bn, Q1 2010= £325.360bn Calculate both the quarterly rate of change and the annual rate of change for Q1 2011.
What would happen to our estimates of the level of constant–price GDP in (3) if the base year for prices was 1996 rather than 2006? What if the base year was 2011? What would happen to the quarterly and annual growth rates you calculated in each case? Explain your answer.
Explain how gross capital formation could have both demand-side and supply-side effects on the economy. How significant do you think such supply-side effects can be?
How important for short-term economic growth do you think household spending is? What factors do you think will be important in affecting household spending in the months ahead?
What factors do you think help to explain the 2.7% annual rate of decline reported in Q1 2011 in the household sector’s real disposable income?
The real annual rate of decline in household spending reported in Q1 2011 was 0.5%. Would you have expected this percentage decline to have been the same as for real disposable income? Explain your answer.
With the UK economy borrowing 11% of GDP, it is undeniable that spending cuts are needed. Of course, the big question is should they be occurring now or delayed until the recovery is more stable. However, another question is now being asked. Should taxes be cut to help the worse off? David Cameron says that this is out of the question. While he is a ‘tax-cutting Tory’ who ‘believes in tax cuts’, any significant cuts in taxes specifically aimed at the poor would simply make matters worse, especially as the Coalition government is already helping to move thousands of families out of taxation altogether, albeit by increasing taxes on the better off.
“It’s no good saying we’re going to deal with the deficit by cutting spending, but then we’re going to make things worse again by cutting taxes. I’m afraid it doesn’t add up.”
Those in favour of cutting taxes include John Redwood, the head of the Tory’s economic affairs committee, who argues that they would help to boost the economy, by ‘encouraging the wealth creators and the private sector’. By reducing the burden on residents, disposable income will increase, helping to stimulate consumption and investment, which should in turn boost aggregate demand. This would be a much needed stimulus following the latest data which showed: a shrinking economy once again in the last quarter of 2010, consumer confidence at its lowest level in the past 20 years, the possibility of unstable markets should the government be seen to ‘twitch’ on the austerity drive and 57% in a YouGov poll saying that the cuts are ‘being imposed unfairly’. Public approval for the Coalition’s budget deficit reduction strategy has fallen from 53% in June 2010 to 38% in February 2010. Add to this rising inflation and unemployment and the last thing people want to hear is surely ‘No big tax cuts’.
However, the budget deficit must be tackled: now or later. Whenever it happens and whichever party is in power, spending must be cut and/or tax revenues must rise and everyone will have to play their part.
I have something of an admission to make: I love data. I suppose it goes back to my time working as a civil servant. My job was to brief on the latest data releases relevant to the household sector and to try to interpret what the latest numbers might be telling us. It meant that on one day I might be briefing about the latest household spending numbers and the next on house prices. It was not only great fun but it also helped my understanding of economics and, importantly, my understanding of the issues and topics that economists wrestle with. Data help to give context perhaps by placing current outcomes, such as the latest high street sales figures, in an historical context or by enabling international comparisons, such as comparing UK consumer behaviour to that across the Channel in France. These days I spend my time teaching, but I retain my passion for data and I do all that I can to convey this to those I teach. So, what I thought we would do here is to look at a few numbers relating to UK households, show that we need not be frightened by them, and show how they can help to paint a picture of the current economic behaviour of the UK consumer.
My first teaching week back this academic term began by talking to students about consumer spending. I think it’s important that those new to economics and learning about household spending behaviour have a sense of how much UK households spend, how this varies, and why how much the sector spends is important. Let’s begin with the household spending figure for 2009 – the 2010 figure will not be available for a couple of months. By going to the latest release of the Quarterly National Accounts we discover that UK households spent £874 billion in 2009. Though a big enough figure in its own right, it is actually 2% less than the £892 billion in 2008. But, more than this, remember that these are nominal values reflecting the prices of 2008 and 2009. The average price of household consumption goods and services rose by 1.3% between these two years which, if we eliminate, means that the volume of consumer spending fell by 3.3%.
To convince anyone that patterns in household spending do matter is pretty straightforward. One way of doing this is to consider household spending relative to GDP, i.e. the value of our country’s output. If we return to latest Quarterly National Accounts we discover that GDP in 2009 is estimated at £1.39 trillion. So with household spending of £874 billion and total output of £1.39 trillion we can readily see the value of households as purchasers of this output. To be more specific, household spending in 2009 was equivalent to some 63% of GDP. This is one of the reasons why economists pay so much attention to trying to interpret the spending patterns of households – one of my old jobs – and, of course, trying to predict the future path of household spending.
You might be wondering about more recent patterns in household consumption since, after all, 2009 now seems quite a while ago. Well, in the third quarter of 2010 household spending was estimated at £232.3 billion and if we add to this the revised figures for the previous three quarters we get a 4-quarter total of £910.4 billion. For many analysts though the key numbers relate to the growth in the volume of household spending. In Q3 2009 real household spending grew by 0.3%. Whilst the first quarter of 2010 saw spending volumes decline by 0.1%, Q3 was the second consecutive quarter in which spending volumes increased. The concern, however, was that the 0.3% growth in Q3 was down on the 0.8% growth in Q2. We wait with much interest the Q4 figure.
When I talk to students about the determinants of household spending many, quite naturally, will point to the importance of disposable income. Again let’s return to the Quarterly National Accounts. In 2009 the disposable income, i.e. post-tax income, of the household sector was estimated at £942.2 billion. That’s another big number. Let’s put that alongside our spending number for households of £874.4 billion and we have an average propensity to consume (APC) out of disposable income of 0.92 which compares with 0.97 in 2008 and 0.98 in 2007. This suggests that households were inclined to do other things with their income in 2009 than just merely spend it. We observe this too if we take note of the real changes in consumption and income in 2009. After removing the impact of price changes, we find that while consumption volumes fell by 3.3%, the spending power of the sector’s disposable income actually rose by 1.1%.
But, what of more recent patterns in disposable income? Well, disposable income in Q3 2010 is estimated to have been £244.3 billion which with consumption of £232.3 billion equates to an average propensity to come out of disposable income of 0.95. If we again add the Q3 disposable income number to those from the previous three quarters we have a 4-quarter disposable income figure of £964.4 billion which gives us an average propensity to consume over this period of 0.94 and, hence, a tad higher than 2009, albeit not at the levels of 2007 and 2008. Meanwhile, real disposable income rose by 1.1% in Q3 following a 2% decline in Q2. The quarterly disposable income series is a notoriously volatile series and the recent past has seen no change in that. Perhaps the key fact though is that the real value of the household sector’s disposable income in Q3 2010 was 1.5% lower than it was a year earlier. Hence, while real disposable income grew across 2009, it is likely to have fallen across 2010.
So why did household spending fall so markedly in 2009 despite the rise in disposable income. It is likely that the impact of the financial crisis, the subsequent recession and a sense of uncertainty amongst households will have been contributory factors. One way in which these factors seems to have affected UK households is in their desire to reduce their exposure to debt. So we end with a few numbers, some a little eye-watering, which relate to household debt and demonstrate the attempt by households to improve their financial positions.
Figures from the Bank of England contained within Table 3 of their statistical release lending to individuals show that at the end of November 2010 households had a stock of debt of £1.454 trillion, not too dissimilar a number to that for GDP! But, this is £5.6 billion less than at the end of November 2009. The main reason for this is the sector’s repayment of unsecured debt, such as credit card debt and overdrafts. Unsecured debt fell by £13.4 billion over the year to stand at £214.1 billion.
The remaining £1.24 trillion of household debt is secured debt and so debt secured against property. This has risen by £7.7 billion over the 12 months to November. But, it would be a mistake to believe that because the overall stock of mortgage debt hasn’t fallen that households are not trying to paying it off. How can this be, you might ask? The answer lies in the growth of housing investment relative to that of mortgage debt. Housing investment relates, in the main, to the purchase of brand new homes and to major home improvements. As our population grows and the housing stock expands and as we spend more on improving our existing housing stock we acquire more mortgage debt. However, the Bank of England figures shows that housing investment has been greater than new secured lending. In other words, the additions to the stock of lending have been less than housing investment.
In Q3 the Bank of England estimates an increase of housing equity of £6.1 billion. Negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW), an injection of housing equity, has become something of a new norm dating back to when the UK economy went into recession in Q2 2008. Since then, the UK household sector has injected some £49.7 billion of housing equity. This, of course, comes at a potential cost for the economy because by increasing equity in property households are using money that cannot be used to fund current consumption or to purchase financial assets. The extent of this negative HEW over the past 10 quarters has been the equivalent to 2.1% of disposable income.
So that ends my tour of the household sector through numbers. Hopefully, the numbers have helped to paint a picture of the importance of the household sector for the economy and to make you think about some of the variables that affect the sector’s behaviour. Given these interesting economic times, painting by economic numbers has never been so much fun!
What factors do you think affect consumer spending in the short-term, say over a three-month period? Would the same factors be important if we were looking at spending patterns over a longer period of time?
Consumers are sometimes described as consumption-smoothers which means that they look to smooth their profile of spending in the face of volatile incomes. What factors do you think affect their ability to do this?
Would you expect the relationship between consumption and income to be consistent and predictable? Explain your answer.
Why do you think real spending values fell in 2009 despite real disposable income rising? Does this mean that households are not in fact consumption-smoothers?
The financial system enables households to accumulate financial assets, financial liabilities and to acquire housing wealth. How might these three variables impact on household spending?
Illustrate with examples what is meant by secured and unsecured debt. Does the long-term accumulation of stocks of these debts have any consequences for household spending?
What do you understand by the term housing equity withdrawal? What is meant by negative HEW and which the UK has observed for the past ten quarters?
What factors might help to explain the ten consecutive quarters of negative HEW? Would you expect things to change in the near future? Explain your answer.
What is the opportunity cost of positive housing equity withdrawal (HEW)? What about the opportunity cost of negative HEW?
To what extent do you think household spending affects economic growth? Is household spending a long-term driver of economic growth?
The housing market has been very volatile over the past year or so. House prices crashed, but then appeared to stabilise. Since then, however, different sources have given very different opinions and predictions about future movements. According to Nationwide Building Society, house prices have increased by an average of £53 a day during September, but others suggest that they remain stable and that they may fall again in 2010.
Not only are house prices important to those buying and selling, but the state of the housing market is also crucial for the recovery of the economy. For example, the construction industry has suffered over the past year and, as of the 2nd October 2009, unemployment in this sector stood at 17.1%. As more and more workers lose their jobs, their disposable income falls and hence demand in the economy is affected. With the possibility of an election debate between the party leaders, many will be waiting to see what their strategies are to revitalise a struggling economy.
Why are recent movements in the housing market going to be a problem for first-time buyers?
The ‘Stamp duty holiday’ will soon come to an end. What do you think will be the impact on the demand for and supply of houses and hence equilibrium prices over the next 6 months?
One of the reasons why house prices have stabilised is a lack of supply. How does this affect equilibrium prices?
Why is the economy so affected by changes in house prices? Think about what happens when construction workers lose their jobs and how this affects aggregate demand. Then consider how the macroeconomy will be affected.
When demand for houses increases, why do prices increase so rapidly? Consider elasticity.