This is the second of three blogs looking at high inflation and its implications. Here we look at changes in the housing market and its effects on households. Another way of analysing the financial importance of the housing and mortgage markets is through the balance sheets and associated flow accounts of the household sector.
We used the concept of balance sheets in our blog Bank failures and the importance of balance sheets. In the blog we referred to the balance-sheet effects from interest rate hikes on the financial well-being of financial institutions.
The analysis is analogous for households. Again, we can identify two general effects: rising borrowing and debt-servicing costs, and easing asset prices.
The following table shows the summary balance sheet of the UK household sector in 1995 and 2021.
Source: National balance sheet estimates for the UK: 1995 to 2021 (January 2023) and series RPHA, ONS
The total value of the sector’s net wealth (or ‘worth’) is the sum of its net financial wealth and its non-financial assets. The former is affected by the value of the stock of outstanding mortgages, which we can see from row 3 in the table (‘loans secured on dwellings’) has increased from £390 billion in 1995 to £1.56 trillion in 2021. This is equivalent to an increase from 70 to 107 per cent of the sector’s annual disposable income. This increase helps to understand the sensitivity of the sector’s financial position to interest rate increases and the sizeable cash flow effects. These effects then have implications for the sector’s spending.
Housing is also an important asset on household balance sheets. The price of housing reflects both the value of dwellings and the land on which they sit, and these are recorded separately on the balance sheets. Their combined balance sheet value increased from £1.09 trillion (£467.69bn + £621.49bn) in 1995 to £6.38 trillion (£1529.87bn + £4853.16bn) in 2021 or from 128% of GDP to 281%.
The era of low inflation and low interest rates that had characterised the previous two decades or so had helped to boost house price growth and thus the value of non-financial assets on the balance sheets. In turn, this had helped to boost net worth, which increased from £2.78 trillion in 1995 to £12.29 trillion in 2021 or from 319% of GDP to 541%.
Higher interest rates and wealth
The advent of higher interest rates was expected not only to impact on the debt servicing costs of households but the value of assets, including, in the context of this blog, housing. As Chart 3 in the previous blog helped to show, higher interest rates and higher mortgage repayments contributed to an easing of house price growth as housing demand eased. On the other hand, the impact on mortgaged landlords helped fuel the growth of rental prices as they passed on their increased mortgage repayment costs to tenants.
Higher interest rates not only affect the value of housing but financial assets such as corporate and government bonds whose prices are inversely related to interest rates. Research published by the Resolution Foundation in July 2023 estimates that these effects are likely to have contributed to a fall in the household wealth from early 2021 to early 2023 by as much as £2.1 trillion.
The important point here is that further downward pressure on asset prices is expected as they adjust to higher interest rates. This and the impact of higher debt servicing costs will therefore continue to impact adversely on general financial well-being with negative implications for the wider macroeconomic environment.
- The Mortgage Crunch
Resolution Foundation, Simon Pittaway (17/6/23)
- Peaked Interest?
Resolution Foundation, Molly Broome, Ian Mulheirn and Simon Pittaway (17/7/23)
- UK inflation to fall to lowest level since March 2022 but Bank of England still tipped to hike interest rates
City A.M., Jack Barnett (17/7/23)
- Mortgage payments set to jump by £500 for one million households
BBC News, Tom Espiner (13/7/23)
- Interest rates: Big rise less likely after inflation surprise
BBC News, Daniel Thomas, Faisal Islam & Dharshini David (19/7/23)
- Rising Mortgage Costs. What Can Be Done?
NIESR blog, Max Mosley and Adrian Pabst (17/7/23)
- UK interest rates forecast to rise less sharply after inflation falls to 7.9%
The Guardian, Richard Partington (19/7/23)
- Mortgage costs: More Scots falling behind on repayments
Herald Scotland, Kristy Dorsey (18/7/23)
- What possible indicators could be used to assess the affordability of residential house prices?
- What do you understand by the concept of the monetary policy transmission mechanism? How do the housing and mortgage markets relate to this concept?
- What factors might affect the proportion of people taking out fixed-rate mortgages rather than variable-rate mortgages?
- What is captured by the concept of net worth? Discuss how the housing and mortgage markets affect the household sector’s net worth.
- What are cash-flow effects? How do rising interest rates effect savers and borrowers?
- How might wealth effects from rising interest rates impact younger and older people differently?
- Discuss the ways by which house price changes could affect household consumption.
March 2023 saw the failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), a regional US bank based in California that focused on financial services for the technology sector. It also saw the forced purchase of global-banking giant, Credit Suisse, by rival Swiss bank, UBS. These events fuelled concerns over the banking sector’s financial well-being, with fears for other financial institutions and the wider economy.
Yet it is not the only sector where concerns abound over financial well-being. The cost-of-living crisis, the hike in interest rates and the economic slowdown continue to have an adverse impact on the finances of households and businesses. Furthermore, many governments face difficult fiscal choices in light of the effects of recent economic shocks, such as COVID and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on the public finances.
Balance sheets and flow accounts
When thinking about the financial well-being of people, business and governments it is now commonplace for economists to reference balance sheets. This may seem strange to some since it is easy to think of balance sheets as the domain of accountants or those working in finance. Yet balance sheets, and the various accounts that lie behind them, are essential in analysing financial well-being and, therefore, in helping to understand economic behaviour and outcomes. Hence, it is important for economists to embrace them too.
A balance sheet is a record of stocks of assets and liabilities of individuals or organisations. Behind these stocks are accounts capturing flows, including income, expenditure, saving and borrowing. There are three types of flow accounts: income, financial and capital. Together, the balance sheets and flow accounts provide important insights into the overall financial position of individuals or organisations as well as the factors contributing to changes in their financial well-being.
The stock value of a sector’s or country’s non-financial assets and its net financial worth (i.e. the balance of financial assets over liabilities) is referred to as its net worth. Non-financial assets include produced assets, such as dwellings and other buildings, machinery and computer software, and non-produced assets, largely land.
An increase in the net worth of the sectors or the whole country implies greater financial well-being, while a decrease implies greater financial stress. Yet a deeper understanding of financial well-being also requires an analysis of the composition of the balance sheets as well as their potential vulnerabilities from shocks, such as interest rate rises, falling asset prices or borrowing constraints.
UK net worth
The chart shows the UK’s stock of net worth since 1995, alongside its value relative to annual national income (GDP) (click here for a PowerPoint). In 2021, the net worth of the UK was £11.8 trillion, equivalent to 5.2 times the country’s annual GDP. This marked an increase of £1.0 trillion or 9 per cent over 2020. This was driven largely by an increase in land values (non-produced non-financial assets).
In contrast, the stock of net worth fell in both 2008 and 2009 at the height of the financial crisis and the ensuing economic slowdown, which contributed to the country’s net worth falling by over 8 per cent.
The chart shows that net financial assets continue to make a negative contribution to the country’s net worth. In 2021 financial liabilities exceeded financial assets by the equivalent of 19 per cent of annual national income.
Non-financial corporations and the public sector together had financial liabilities in excess of financial assets of £3.4 trillion and £2.5 trillion respectively. However, once non-financial assets are accounted for, non-financial corporations had a positive net worth of £607 billion, although their value was not sufficient to prevent the public sector having a negative net worth of £1.2 trillion. Meanwhile, households had a positive net worth of £11.4 trillion and financial corporations a negative net worth of £4.9 billion.
Vulnerabilities and the balance sheets
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) resulted from balance sheet distress. Some argue that this distress can be attributed to a mismanagement of the bank’s liquidity position, which saw the bank use the surge in funds, on the back of buoyant activity among technology companies, to purchase long-dated bonds while, at the same time, reducing the share of assets held in cash. However, as the growth of the technology sector slowed as pandemic restrictions eased and, crucially, as central banks, including the Federal Reserve, began raising rates, the value of these long-dated bonds fell. This is because there is a negative relationship between interest rates and bond prices. Bonds pay a fixed rate of interest and so as other interest rates rise, bonds become less attractive to savers, pushing down their price. As depositors withdrew funds, Silicon Valley Bank found itself increasingly trying to generate liquidity from assets whose value was falling.
A major problem with balance sheet distress is contagion. This can occur, in part, because of what is known as ‘counterparty risk’. This simply refers to the idea that one party’s well-being is tied directly to that of another. However, the effects on economies from counterparty risks can be amplified by their impact on general credit conditions, confidence and uncertainty. This helps to explain why the US government stepped in quickly to guarantee SVB deposits.
There is, however, a ‘moral hazard’ problem here: if central banks are always prepared to step in, it can signal to banks that they are too big to fail and disincentivise them for adopting appropriate risk management strategies in the first place.
Subsequently, First Citizens Bank acquired the commercial banking business of SVB, while its UK subsidiary was acquired by HSBC for £1.
Interest rates and financial well-being
In light of the failures of SVB and Credit Suisse, the raising of interest rates by inflation-targeting central banks has raised concerns about the liquidity and liabilities positions of banks and non-bank financial institutions, such as hedge funds, insurers and pension funds. As we have seen, higher interest rates push down the value of bonds, which form a major part of banks’ balance sheets. The problem for central banks is that, if this forced them to make large-scale injections of liquidity by buying bonds (quantitative easing), it would make the fight against inflation more difficult. Quantitative easing is the opposite of tightening monetary policy and thus credit conditions, which are seen as necessary to control inflation.
Yet the raising of interest rates has implications for the financial well-being of other sectors too since they also are affected by the effects on asset values and debt-servicing costs. For example, raising interest rates has a severe impact on the cashflow of UK homeowners with large variable-rate mortgages. This can substantially affect their spending. The UK has a high proportion of homeowners on variable-rate mortgages or fairly short-term fixed-rate mortgages. Also for a large number of households their mortgages are high relative to their incomes.
In short, falling asset values and increasing debt-servicing costs from rising interest rates in response to rising inflation tends to dampen spending in the economy. The effects will be larger the more burdened with debt people and businesses are, and the less liquidity they have to access. This has the potential to lead to a financial consolidation in order to restore the well-being of balance sheets. This involves cutting borrowing and spending.
Such a consolidation could be exacerbated if financial institutions become distressed and if it were to result in even larger numbers of people and businesses facing greater restrictions in accessing credit. These balance sheet pressures will continue to weigh on the policy responses of central banks as they attempt to navigate economies out of the current inflationary pressures.
- What is recorded on a balance sheet? Explain with reference to the household sector.
- What is meant by net worth? Does an increase in net worth mean that an individual’s or sector’s financial well-being has increased?
- What is meant by ‘liquidity-constrained’ individuals or businesses? What factors might explain how liquidity constraints arise?
- It is sometimes argued that there is a predator-prey relationship between income and debt. How could such a relationship arise and what is its importance for the economy?
- Why might a deterioration of a country’s balance sheets have both national and international consequences?
- Explain the possible trade-offs facing central banks when responding to inflationary pressures.
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.
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)
- Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
- Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
- What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
- Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
- In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
- How could QE have been made more effective?
- 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.
Money and Credit – March 2013 Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
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)
- Outline the ways in which the financial system could impact on the spending behaviour of households.
- Why might the current level of income not always be the main determinant of a household’s spending?
- How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
- Explain what you understand by net lending to individuals. How does net lending to individuals affect stocks of debt?
- 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.
- 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
|Net financial wealth
|Non-financial (physical) wealth