Tag: Financial Assets

It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.

According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.

In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.

“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”

This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:

“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”

Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:

“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”

Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.

Articles

The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)

Questions

  1. Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
  2. Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
  3. What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
  4. Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
  5. In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
  6. How could QE have been made more effective?
  7. What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?

Have you ever woken in the night worrying about your finances? Most of us have. Our overall financial position undoubtedly exerts influence on our spending. Therefore, we would not expect our current spending levels to be entirely determined by our current income level.

Our financial health, or what economists call our net financial wealth, can be calculated as the difference between our financial assets (savings) and our financial liabilities (debt). Between them, British households have amassed a stock of debt of £1.423 trillion, almost as much as annual GDP, which is around £1.5 trillion (click here to download the PowerPoint.) We look here at recent trends in loans by financial institutions to British households. We consider the effect that the financial crisis and the appetite of individuals for lending is having on the debt numbers.

There are two types of lending to individuals. The first is secured debt and refers to loans against property. In other words, secured debt is just another name for mortgage debt. The second type of lending is referred to as unsecured debt. This covers all other forms of loans involving financial institutions, including overdrafts, outstanding credit card debt and personal loans. The latest figures from the Bank of England’s Money and Credit show that as of 31 March 2013, the stock of debt owed by individuals in the UK (excluding loans involving the Student Loans Company) was £1.423 trillion. Of this, £1.265 trillion was secured debt while the remaining £157.593 billion was unsecured debt. From this, we can the significance of secured debt. It comprises 89 per cent of the stock of outstanding debt to individuals. The remaining 11 per cent is unsecured debt.

The second chart shows the growth in the stock of debt owed by individuals (click here to download the PowerPoint chart). In January 1994 the stock of secured debt stood at £358.75 billion and the stock of unsecured debt at £53.774 billion. 87 per cent of debt then was secured debt and, hence, little different to today. The total stock of debt has grown by 246 per cent between January 1994 and March 2013. Unsecured debt has grown by 197 per cent while secured debt has grown by 253 per cent.

However, more recently we see a different picture evolving, more especially in unsecured debt. Since October 2008, the monthly series of the stock of unsecured debt has fallen on 47 occasions and risen on only 7 occasions. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has fallen on only 12 occasions and often by very small amounts. Consequently, the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by 23.2 per cent between October 2008 and March 2013. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has risen by 3.5 per cent. The total stock of debt has fallen by 0.4 per cent over this period.

Another way of looking at changes in the stock of debt is to focus on what are known as net lending figures. This is simply the difference between the gross amount lent in a period and the amount repaid. The net lending figures will, of course, mirror changes in the total debt stock closely. For example, a negative net lending figure means that repayments are greater than gross lending. This will translate into a fall in the stock of debt. However, some difference occurs when debts have to be written off and not repaid.

The third chart shows net lending figures since January 1994 (click here to download the PowerPoint chart). The chart captures the financial crisis very nicely. We can readily see a collapse of net lending by financial institutions to households. It is, of course, difficult to disentangle from the net lending figures those changes driven by changes in the supply of credit by financial institutions and those from changes in the demand for credit by individuals. But, we can be certain that the enormous change in credit levels in 2008 were driven by a massive reduction in the provision of credit.

To further put the net lending figures into context, consider the following numbers. Over the period from January 2000 to December 2007, the average amount of monthly net lending was £8.52 billion. In contrast, since January 2009 the average amount of net lending has been £691 million per month. Consider too the composition of this net lending. The average amount of net secured lending between January 2000 and December 2007 was £7.13 billion per month compared with £1.39 billion for net unsecured lending. Since January 2009, monthly net secured lending has averaged only £756 million while monthly net unsecured lending has averaged -£64.4 million. Therefore, repayments of unsecured lending have outstripped gross unsecured lending.

While further analysis is needed to fully understand the drivers of the net lending figures, it is, nonetheless, clear that the financial system of 2013 is very different to that prior to the financial crisis. This change is affecting the growth of the debt stock of households. This is most obviously the case with unsecured debt. The stock of unsecured debt in March 2013 is 24 per cent smaller than in its peak in September 2008. It is now the job of economists to understand the implications of how the new emerging patterns in household debt will affect our behaviour and overall economic activity.

Data

Money and Credit – March 2013 Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Articles

Bank of England extends lending scheme Financial Times, Chris Giles (24/4/13)
Markets insight: Europe and the US lines cross on household debt ratio Financial Times, Gillian Tett (9/5/13)
British families are the deepest in debt Telegraph, James Kirkup (14/5/13)
Total property debt of British households stands as £848bn Guardian, Hilary Osborne (13/5/13)
Household finances reach best level in three years – but are stuck below pre-crisis levels This is Money.co.uk, Matt West (17/5/13)
ONS says Welsh households have lowest debts in Britain BBC News (28/1/13)

Questions

  1. Outline the ways in which the financial system could impact on the spending behaviour of households.
  2. Why might the current level of income not always be the main determinant of a household’s spending?
  3. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
  4. Explain what you understand by net lending to individuals. How does net lending to individuals affect stocks of debt?
  5. Outline the main patterns seen in the stock of household debt over the past decade and discuss what you consider to be the principal reasons for these patterns.
  6. If you were updating this blog in a year’s time, how different would you expect the charts to look?

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.

The Household Sector Balance Sheet

Component 2010 (£bn) 2011 (£bn)
Financial assets 4,302.8 4,283.7
Financial liabilities 1,540.7 1,541.3
Net financial wealth 2,762.1 2,742.4
Non-financial (physical) wealth 4,272.2 4,302.1
Net worth 7,034.3 7,044.5

Source: National Balance Sheet, 2012 Dataset (Office for National Statistics)
Note: Figures include non-profit institutions serving households

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.

Data

National Balance Sheet Dataset, 2012 dataset Office for National Statistics
Statistical Bulletin: The National Balance Sheet, 2012 Results Office for National Statistics
United Kingdom Economic Accounts, Q3 2012 dataset Office for National Statistics

Articles

UK mortgage approvals hit ten-month high Telegraph, Emma Rowley (4/1/13)
UK households reduce exposure to debt Guardian, Hilary Osborne (4/1/13)
The debt collector’s hammering at the front door. Will this be a wakeup call to Westminster? New Statesman, Rowenna Davis (7/1/13)
Mortgages soar thanks to Bank’s Funding for Lending Independent, Russell Lynch (3/1/13)
Consumer spending surveys give mixed messages BBC News (7/1/13)
House owners raise stakes in homes, Bank of England says BBC News (31/12/12)

Questions

  1. Are the components of the balance sheet stocks or flows. Explain your answer. What about disposable income?
  2. List those factors that might affect the value of each component of the household balance sheet.
  3. Again considering the balance sheet, try drawing up a list of ways in which the components of the balance sheet could affect spending.
  4. What do you think has been the motivating factor behind the declining stock of unsecured financial liabilities? What impact is this likely to have on consumer spending?
  5. If the real value of disposable income increases in 2013 shouldn’t this be enough to see real value of consumption increase?
  6. How would the balance sheet of a household that rents differ from a household that is an owner-occupier?

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!

Halifax Press Release
UK household wealth increases five-fold in the past 50 years Halifax (part of the Lloyds Banking Group) (15/5/10)

Articles

Household wealth ‘up five-fold’ UK Press Association (15/5/10)
We’ve never had it so good: Families five times richer than in 1959 Daily Mail, Steve Doughty (15/5/10)
Household wealth grows five-fold in past 50 years BBC News (16/5/10)
Average household wealth jumps £150,000 Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (15/5/10)

Questions

  1. Draw up a list of the ways in which you think consumer spending may be affected by: (i) the stock of household wealth; and (ii) the composition of household wealth.
  2. What factors do you think lie behind the annual 5% real term increase in the value of residential properties since 1959?.
  3. How might the sensitivity of consumer spending to changes in interest rates be affected by the types of mortgage product available?
  4. Why do you think consumer spending fell by 3.2% in real terms in 2009 despite real disposable income increasing by 3.2%?
  5. What would you predict for consumption growth in 2010? Explain your answer.

Housing Equity Withdrawal, or HEW for short, is new borrowing that is secured against property which is not reinvested in the housing market. In other words, it is borrowed money that is not used by households to purchase property or to undertake major refurbishments, such as extensions to existing residential properties. The latest HEW statistical release from the Bank of England shows that HEW in Q4 2009 was again negative, making it the seventh consecutive quarter of negative HEW. But, what does a negative HEW figure mean?

Negative HEW occurs when the total saving by households in housing (either by paying back mortgages or by purchasing property directly without borrowing) is greater than new borrowing secured against housing. It results in an increase in housing equity held by the household sector. In the fourth quarter of 2009, the Bank’s seasonally-adjusted figures show that negative HEW was just over £4.3 billion, equivalent to 1.6% of disposable income.

But why might the household sector have wanted to save through housing and how might this impact on consumer spending? In truth there is no single reason, but one potentially important reason is likely to be the sector’s desire to rebuild its balance sheets. In times of uncertainty, such as those that we face now, a perfectly understandable response by households is to try to reduce their exposure to debt. During the seven quarters in which HEW has been negative, households have used housing as a vehicle for saving to the tune of £36.5 billion, equivalent to 2.2% of the sector’s disposable income. To some extent the fact that, as a result of the banking crisis, house-buyers have had to put down larger deposits when purchasing housing helps to reduce their exposure to debt. But, the extent of the negativity of HEW means that households more generally have been actively looking to repay some of their outstanding mortgage debt.

So what of the impact of HEW on consumer spending? Negative sums of HEW mean that consumers are either reducing consumer spending, reducing holdings of financial assets, increasing levels of unsecured debt (e.g. personal loans or credit card debt) or, of course, undertaking some combination of these. Given that the stock of unsecured debt has actually declined by £7.9 billion to £224.8 billion in the 12 months to February, the impact would seem to be falling on consumer spending.

Some commentators are pointing to the weakening pace with which households are saving through housing. The current level of saving through housing is, as we said earlier, equivalent to 1.6% of disposable income, down from the 3.0% recorded in both Q4 2008 and Q1 2009. But, this would seem to simply highlight the extent of the precautionary behaviour by households in the midst of the economic downturn. It would be a surprise to see any significant end soon to the UK household sector’s precautionary behaviour.

Articles

Britons plough cash into repaying debt The Times, James Charles (6/4/10)
The great mortgage payback Reuters, Harry Wallop (6/4/10)
Home owners’ housing equity still increasing BBC News (6/4/10) )
Brits pay off £4bn of mortgage debt Press Association (6/4/10)
UK Q4 housing injection smallest since Q2 2008 – BOE MarketNews.com (6/4/10)

Data

Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by positive and negative values of HEW.
  2. What implications might additions to housing equity have for consumer spending?
  3. What factors do you think lie behind the seven consecutive quarters of negative HEW?
  4. If house price inflation were to start picking up in the near future, would you expect to see positive values of HEW and, if so, how strongly positive?
  5. Other than through HEW, how might the housing and mortgage markets impact on consumer spending?