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.
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?
It looks like being a busy time for economic commentators for many, many months as they keep an eye on how the economy is progressing in light of the squeeze in public spending and impending tax increases. Inevitably these commentators – including us here on the Sloman News Site – will be watching to see how the private sector responds and whether or not, as is hoped, private sector activity will begin filling the void left by the public sector.
Of course, the largest group of purchasers in the economy is the household sector. So, in the short term at least, they will be crucial in supporting the total level of aggregate demand. The effects of any rebalancing of aggregate demand as the public sector’s role is reduced will be more painful should the real growth in household spending slow or even go into reverse. As consumers we are well aware that our spending depends on more than just our current income. For instance, it is affected by our expectations of our future incomes and by our general financial position. In essence the latter reflects our holdings of financial assets and liabilities (debt) and any wealth we may be lucky enough to hold in valuables such as housing.
So, do we have any clues as to how the financial position of households might be impacting on our spending? Well, the latest numbers from the Bank of England on Housing Equity Withdrawal (HEW) offer us an important insight in to the extent of the fragility felt by households as to their financial position. These numbers show that households increased their stake in housing by some £6.2 billion in the second quarter of 2010. At least two questions probably spring to mind at this point! Firstly, what is HEW and, secondly, what has this got to do with spending?
Let’s begin by defining Housing equity withdrawal (HEW). HEW occurs when new lending secured on dwellings (net lending) increases by more than the investment in the housing stock. Housing investment relates largely to the purchase of brand new homes and to major home improvements, but also includes house moving costs, such as legal fees. When HEW is negative, new secured lending is less than the level of housing investment. In other words, given the level of investment in housing, we would have expected new mortgage debt to have been greater. This means that households are increasing their housing equity.
This brings us to answering our second question – the ‘so what question’. As with all the choices we make, there is an opportunity cost – a sacrifice. By increasing our equity in property and using housing as a vehicle for saving we are using money that cannot be used to fund current consumption or to purchase financial assets.
As we have already noted, the Housing Equity Withdrawal (HEW) figures for Q2 2010 show that households increased their stake in housing by some £6.2 billion. This is equivalent to a little over 2½% of disposable income in the period and income that, as we have also said, could have helped to boost aggregate demand through spending. And, there is another concern for those hoping that households will help support aggregate demand in the short term: negative HEW is not new. In fact, HEW has been negative since the second quarter of 2008, the exact same quarter that the UK entered recession. The magnitude of negative HEW over these past 9 quarters is equivalent to £44.2 billion or 2.1% of disposable income.
Of course, these latest HEW figures are figures from the past. What we are ultimately interested in, of course, is future behaviour. But, it might be that the prolonged period over which British households have been consolidating their own financial position – just as the public sector is looking to do – suggests that households are in cautious mood. So the question for you to debate is how cautious you think the household sector will remain and, therefore, how much households will help support aggregate demand in the months ahead.
What do you understand by aggregate demand? And what do you think a ‘rebalancing’ of aggregate demand might refer to?
What do you understand by the term housing equity withdrawal?
What is the opportunity cost of positive housing equity withdrawal (HEW)? What about the opportunity cost of negative HEW?
What factors might help to explain the nine consecutive quarters of negative HEW?
List those items that you might included under: (i) household financial assets; (ii) household financial liabilities; and (iii) household physical assets. Using this information, how would you calculate the net worth of a household?
Let’s think about the spending of households. Draw up a list of factors that you think would affect a household’s current spending plans. Given your list, what conclusion would you draw about the strength of household spending in the months ahead?
There is a new craze sweeping across nations. We might call it the Consolidation Conga! Across the world, and, in particular Europe, government after government seems to be announcing plans to cut its budget deficit. But, with so much focus on governments’ plans for fiscal consolidation it would be all too easy to ignore evidence of consolidation in other sectors too. In the UK, the household sector continues to show a zest for the consolidation of its own finances.
Figures from the Bank of England show that during April net unsecured lending, i.e. lending through credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans less repayments, was again in negative territory, this time to the tune of £136 million. This means that the repayment of unsecured debt exceeded new unsecured lending by £136 million. When an allowance is made for unsecured debt ‘written off’ by financial institutions, we find that the stock of unsecured debt fell by £827 million.
April’s fall in the stock of unsecured debt means that the household sector’s stock of unsecured debt has now fallen for 11 months in a row. Over this period the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £11.47 billion or by 4.9%. Some of this fall is clearly attributable to the ‘writing off’ of bad debts since net unsecured lending has been negative in only 6 of these 11 months. However, this should not detract from our central message of a consolidation by households of their finances. Indeed, the sum of net unsecured lending over these 11 months is -£459 million. In other words, over the period from June 2009 to April 2010 the household sector made a net repayment of unsecured debt of some £459 million.
While the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £11.47 billion since last June to stand at £220.77 billion in April 2010, the household sector’s overall stock of debt has fallen too, although only by £178 million to £1,459.5 billion. The much smaller decrease in total debt reflects an increase in the stock of mortgage debt by £11.291 billion over the same period. But, there are two points to make here. Firstly, it is difficult to over-play the fact that the overall stock of household debt has fallen. If we look at the Bank of England’s monthly series which goes back to April 1993, the first monthly fall in the total stock of debt did not occur until October 2008. In other words, the norm has simply been for total household debt to increase.
The second point to make is that the growth in secured debt has slowed markedly. The stock of secured debt in April was only 0.9% higher than a year earlier. But, more than this, the Bank of England’s Housing Equity Withdrawal numbers show that since the second quarter of 2008 the household sector’s stock of secured borrowing has increased by less than we would have expected given the additional housing investment, i.e. money spent on moving costs, the purchase of newly built properties or expenditure on major home improvements. This has resulted in what we know as negative Housing Equity Withdrawal (HEW). This again is evidence that households too are consolidating.
The desire for the household sector to consolidate and to reduce its exposure to debt is pretty understandable, especially given these uncertain times. But, as we discuss in Has the tide turned for Keynesianism?, there are dangers for national and global aggregate demand of mass consolidation. It remains to be seen if we can really afford for so many to be dancing the Consolidation Conga!
Each month the Bank of England reports on the amount of net lending by households. This is the amount that households have borrowed from financial institutions (gross lending) less any repayments households have made to financial institutions. In March, net lending to households was £643 million, down from £2.43 billion in February. Of the £643 million, £318 million was net secured lending (i.e. mortgage lending) and £325 million net unsecured lending (i.e. lending through credit cards, overdrafts and general loans).
Now, you might think that net lending of £643 million means that the stock of debt owed by households grew by £643 million. Well, not quite; some debt is ‘written off’ by financial institutions. When bad debts are taken into consideration we find that the stock of debt actually fell in March by £2.682 billion to stand at £1.460 trillion. Of this stock of debt, £1.239 trillion is secured debt and £221.65 billion is unsecured debt. Put another way, 84% of household debt is secured debt and 16% unsecured debt.
One of the interesting developments of late has been the decline in the household sector’s stock of unsecured debt. It has now fallen for 10 months in a row and in 16 of the last 18 months. Interestingly, in only 7 of these months was net unsecured lending actually negative. However, historically low sums of net unsecured lending combined with the writing-off of unsecured debt has meant that the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £14.975 billion over the past 18 months. Over the same period the total stock of debt increased by £2.379 billion.
Patterns in net lending by households and in the growth of the stock of household debt reflect, on one hand, the willingness and ability of lenders to supply credit and, on the other hand, the demand by households for credit. On the supply-side, the financial crisis continues to restrict lending by financial institutions. But demand has been affected too because households as well as banks are looking to rebuild their balance sheets. Furthermore, the economic downturn, lower asset prices, including, until of late, lower house prices, as well as a sense of economic uncertainty have all contributed to a more precautionary mind-set amongst households.
This precautionary mind-set has impacted on the housing market. Housing market activity can, at best, be described as ‘thin’. Even though the seasonally-adjusted number of mortgage approvals for house purchase rose by 4.3% in March to 48,901, this is almost half the 94,043 seen on average each month over the past ten years. A further demonstration of the household sector’s precautionary behaviour is the sector using housing as a vehicle for saving. We observed in our blog article Saving through housing: households build firmer foundations that since the second quarter of 2008 additional housing investment (i.e. money spent on moving costs, including stamp duty, the purchase of newly built properties or expenditure on major home improvements) has been greater than net secured lending. This is known as negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW). In other words, the household sector’s stock of secured borrowing has increased by less than we would have expected.
In the 12 months to the end of March, the stock of secured debt rose by only 0.9% compared with an average annual growth rate of 9.8% over the past 10 years. Of course this doesn’t mean that households have simply been using some of their own money to fund housing investment, but that they have also been paying-off some of their existing secured debt. This, coupled with the 4.3% decline in the stock of unsecured debt, demonstrates the extent to which the household sector has been looking to consolidate. It would be something of a surprise if this consolidation was to stop any time soon.
What do you understand by the term net lending? What would a negative net lending figure indicate?
Illustrate with examples what you understand by secured and unsecured debt.
What factors might explain why the household sector’s net secured lending has been less than the amount of its housing investment (e.g. the household sector’s purchase of new houses or its spending on major refurbishments)? Does this mean that stock of secured lending has been falling?
What factors might explain the recent historically low levels of net unsecured lending?
Does net lending have to be negative for the stock of debt to fall? Explain your answer.
As well as the household sector, which other sectors might need to rebuild their balance sheets? How might such behaviour be expected to impact on the economy?