Household debt in the UK has reached a record level. Individuals now owe £1430 billion. This compares with the UK’s general government debt of £1443 billion – also at a record level. These figures are illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
But these figures are nominal. If you look at the real figures (i.e. corrected for inflation), household debt has been falling. In today’s prices, household debt peaked at £1668 billion in March 2008. Also, if you look at household debt as a proportion of GDP, it fell from a peak of 100.96% in May 2009 to 87.43% in July 2013 (see chart). However, since then it has begun rising again, standing at 87.65% in October 2013.
So has household debt become less of a problem? In aggregate terms, the answer is probably yes. However, it is too early to know whether a continuing recovery in the economy will be fuelled by real debt rising again and whether the recovery will encourage people to take on higher levels of debt?
For many people, however, debt has become more and more of a problem. In other words, the aggregate figures conceal what has happened in terms of the distribution of debt. According to a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) study:
Indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts more than four times their annual income. Average debt repayments within this group amounted to nearly half their gross monthly income.
And the poorest families, often with very poor credit ratings, are frequently forced to turn to payday lenders, charging sky-high interest rates (see Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?).
As mainstream banks reduced access to credit following the financial crash, the market for short-term high-cost credit (payday lenders, pawnbrokers, rent-to-buy and doorstop lenders) increased dramatically and is now worth £4.8 billion a year.
Payday lenders have increased business from £900 million in 2008/09 to just over £2 billion (or around 8 million loans) in 2011/12. Around half of payday loan customers reported taking out the money because it was the only form of credit they could get. The number of people going to loan sharks is also said to have increased – the most recent estimate puts it at 310,000 people.
With rising energy and food bills hitting the poorest hardest, this section of the population could find debt levels continuing to rise, especially if interest rates rise. As Chris Pond, who chaired the CJS study, stated:
The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ The Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
UK debt crisis: poorest face ‘perfect storm’ Channel 4 News (20/11/13)
One in five struggle with serious debt The Telegraph, Nicole Blackmore (27/11/13)
It doesn’t matter what we do with Wonga: personal debt is about to rocket The Telegraph, Tim Wigmore (26/11/13)
Poorest families ‘need more help over debt’ BBC News (20/11/13)
More than 5,000 people a year ‘homeless’ as household debt crisis deepens, CSJ warns Centre for Social Justice Press Release (20/11/13)
Monthly amounts outstanding of total (excluding the Student Loans Company) sterling net lending to individuals and housing associations (in sterling millions) seasonally adjusted Bank of England
Public Sector Finances First Release – Public Sector Consolidated Gross Debt ONS
Household debt (Economics Indicators update) House of Commons Library (29/11/13)
- What are the macroeconomic implications of rising levels of household debt?
- Why may an economy which has high levels of household debt be more subject to cyclical fluctuations in real GDP?
- What are the problems of having a recovery driven largely by increased consumer expenditure?
- Why have many people in the poorest sectors of society found their debt levels rising the fastest?
- Why may rising levels of debt of the most vulnerable people make it harder for the Bank of England to use conventional monetary policy if recovery becomes established?
- What policies could be pursued to try to reduce the debts of the poorest people?
- Discuss the effectiveness of these various policies.
A constant feature of the UK economy (and of many other Western economies) has been record low interest rates. Since March 2009, Bank Rate has stood at 0.5%. Interest rates have traditionally been used to keep inflation on target, but more recently their objective has been to stimulate growth. However, have these low interest rates had a negative effect on the business environment?
Interest rates are a powerful tool of monetary policy and by affecting many of the components of aggregate demand, economic growth can be stimulated. This low-interest rate environment is an effective tool to stimulate consumer spending, as it keeps borrowing costs low and in particular can keep mortgage repayments down. However, this policy has been criticised for the harm it has been doing to savers – after all, money in the bank will not earn an individual any money with interest rates at 0.5%! Furthermore, there is now a concern that such low interest rates have led to ‘zombie companies’ and they are restricting the growth potential and recovery of the economy.
A report by the Adam Smith Institute suggests that these ‘zombie companies’ have emerged in part by the low-interest environment and are continuing to absorb resources, which could otherwise be re-allocated to companies with more potential, productivity and a greater contribution to the economic recovery. During a recession, there will undoubtedly be many business closures, as aggregate demand falls, sales and profits decline until eventually the business becomes unviable and loans cannot be repaid. Given the depth and duration of the recent recessionary period, the number of business closures should have been very large. However, the total number appears to be relatively low – around 2% or 100,000 and the report suggests that the low interest rates have helped to ‘protect’ them.
Low interest rates have enabled businesses to meet their debt repayments more easily and with some banks being unwilling to admit to ‘bad loans’, businesses have benefited from loans being extended or ‘rolled over’. This has enabled them to survive for longer and as the report suggests, may be preventing a full recovery. The report’s author, Tom Papworth said:
Low interest rates and bank forbearance represent a vast and badly targeted attempt to avoid dealing with the recession. Rather than solving our current crisis, they risk dooming the UK to a decade of stagnation … We tend to see zombies as slow-moving and faintly laughable works of fiction. Economically, zombies are quite real and hugely damaging, and governments and entrepreneurs cannot simply walk away.
The problem they create is that resources are invested into these companies – labour, capital, innovation. This creates an opportunity cost – the resources may be more productive if invested into new companies, with greater productive potential. The criticism is that the competitiveness of the economy is being undermined by the continued presence of such companies and that this in turn is holding the UK economy back. Perhaps the interest rate rise that may happen this time next year may be what is needed to encourage the re-allocation of capital. However, a 0.5 percentage point rise in interest rates would hardly be the end of the world for some of these companies. Perhaps a more focused approach looking at restructuring is the key to their survival and the allocation of resources to their most productive use. The following articles and the report itself consider the case of the trading dead.
The Trading Dead The Adam Smith Institute, Tom Papworth November 2013
Zombie firms threaten UK’s economic recovery, says thinktank The Guardian, Gyyn Topam (18/11/13)
Zombie companies ‘probably have no long term future’ BBC News (18/11/13)
Rate rise set to put stake through heart of zombie companies Financial Times, Brian Groom (14/11/13)
Why we can still save the zombie firms hindering the UK economic rival City A.M., Henry Jackson (18/11/13)
Breathing new life into zombies The Telegraph, Rachel Bridge (9/11/13)
- Which components of aggregate demand are affected (and how) by low interest rates?
- Why do low interest rates offer ‘protection’ to vulnerable businesses?
- How is the reallocation of resources relevant in the case of zombie companies?
- If interest rates were to increase, how would this affect the debts of vulnerable businesses? Would a small rate irse be sufficient and effective?
- What suggestions does the report give for zombie companies to survive and become more productive?
- Is there evidence of zombie companies in other parts of the world?
With the financial crisis came accusations towards the banking sector that they had taken on too many bad risks. Banks were lending money on more and more risky ventures and this in part led to the credit crunch. Since then, bank lending has fallen and banks have been less and less willing to take on risky investments.
Small businesses tend to fall (rightly or wrongly) into the category of high risk and it is this sector in particular that is finding itself struggling to make much needed investments. All businesses require loans for investments and improvements and if the banking sector is unable or unwilling to lend then these improvements cannot take place.
Quantitative easing has been a key response across the world to the credit crisis to encourage banks to begin lending to each other and to customers. A new government backed scheme worth £20bn aims to increase bank lending to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). By guaranteeing £20bn of the participating banks’ own borrowing, lenders will be able to borrow more cheaply than normal. As the banks (so far including Barclays, Santander, RBS and Lloyds Banking Group) can borrow at a cheaper rate, they will therefore be able to pass this on to the businesses they lend to. Under this National Loan Guarantee Scheme (NLGS), businesses will be able to borrow at interests rates that are 1 percentage point lower than those outside the scheme. £5bn will initially be made available with subsequent installments each of £5bn to come later.
With the Budget looming, the Chancellor is keen to show that the government is delivering on its promise to give smaller businesses access to finance at lower interest rates. If this initiative does indeed stimulate higher lending, it may be a much needed boost for the economy’s faltering economic growth. Criticisms have been leveled at the scheme, saying that although it is a step in the right direction, it can by no means be assumed that it will be sufficient to solve all the problems. In particular, the NLGS is unlikely to provide much help for those small businesses that can’t get finance in the first place, irrespective of the cost of the borrowing. Furthermore some banks, notably HSBC, have chosen not to participate in the scheme, due to it not being commercially viable. The overall effect of this scheme will take some time be seen, but if it is effective, it could give the economy and the small business sector a much needed boost.
Banks to join credit-easing scheme Associated Press (20/3/12)
Credit easing: small businesses to get £20bn of guaranteed cheap loans Telegraph, Harry Wilson (20/3/12)
Bank lending scheme targets small businesses BBC News (20/3/12)
Move over Merlin, credit easing has arrived Independent, Ben Chu (20/3/12)
Credit easing injects £20bn into small firms Sky News (20/3/12)
UK launches small firm loan scheme, critics want more Reuters, Fiona Shaikh (20/3/12)
Osborne’s big plan: £20bn for small businesses Independent, Andrew Grice and Ben Chu (20/3/12)
George Osborne launches new scheme to boost lending to businesses Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/3/12)
- What is credit easing? Has the government’s previous credit easing had the intended effect?
- Why are small and medium sized enterprises normally seen as risky investments?
- Briefly explain the thinking behind this National Loan Guarantee Scheme.
- What are the criticisms currently levelled at this scheme? To what extent are they justified?
- Why has HSBC said that the scheme is not commercially viable for the bank?
- Explain why this scheme could provide a stimulus to the UK economy.
The International Monetary Fund consists of 187 countries and is concerned with its members’ economic health. It promotes co-operation, economic stability and is also there to lend to those countries facing difficulties. The role of the IMF as a lender has come into question, as critics argue that the conditions placed on loans to countries can cause more problems than they solve, as the cause of the problems is not always identified. However, despite the criticisms and the current charges facing the former IMF Chief, the International Monetary Fund continues to play an important role in the global economic environment.
Many countries have used IMF credit and over the past two decades it has predominantly been the transition and the emerging market economies that have demanded the IMF’s resources. Whilst its lending did drop off in the mid 2000s, the global financial crisis of 2008/09 saw an increase in the demand for IMF funds from emerging economies to some $60 billion. In May 2010, we saw the IMF together with the EU put together a rescue package for Greece and it is now the turn of Egypt. The uprisings in Egypt put the stability of the economy in jeopardy, as investment declined, tax revenues decreased and the usually buoyant tourist industry started to struggle. Despite the efforts of the government to stabilise the economy, it remains short of cash and the IMF looks set to agree a loan deal of $3 billion (£1.8 billion). Egypt would have five years to repay the loan at an interest rate of 1.5%, after a three year ‘grace period’.
Other countries to receive loans include Ireland, Belarus, the Ukraine and Iceland, the latter of which owes the IMF $2,828.67 per person of its population. The UK has used the IMF back in 1976 and it may be something to look out for, depending on how our recovery continues. The following articles look at the IMF and its role in promoting global financial stability.
IMF to lend Egypt $3 bn: Ministry Associated Press (6/5/11)
IMF agrees $3bn financing deal with Egypt BBC News (5/6/11)
Timeline: Greece’s debt crisis Reuters (5/6/11)
Egypt strikes $3bn IMF deal to ‘re-launch’ economy Guardian, Jack Shenker (5/6/11)
The IMF versus the Arab Spring Guardian, Austin Mackell (25/5/11)
EU/IMF/ECB statement on Greek bailout Reuters (3/6/11)
Belarus wins $3 billion loan from Russia-led fund, still seeks IMF’s help Bloomberg, Scott Rose and Daryna Krasnolutska (4/6/11)
IMF frees up $225mn for Iceland Associated Press (4/6/11)
IMF loan: which country owes the most? Guardian (24/5/11)
International Monetary Fund
International Monetary Fund Homepage
IMF outlines $3 billion support for Egypt International Monetary Fund, IMF Survey Online (5/6/11)
- What is the role of the IMF and how is it financed?
- What are the objectives of the loans to countries such as Greece, Iceland and Egypt?
- What other countries has the IMF lent to and what are the conditions that have been placed on these loans?
- What has been the impact on the Egyptian economy of the uprisings? Think about all the industries that have been affected and the wider impacts.
- Can you find any examples of circumstances in which the conditions of an IMF loan have made problems worse for the recipient?
- Why are the conditions of the IMF loan to Egypt favourable and how will the loan help the economy?
- Look at the trend in IMF lending. What factors explain the peak and troughs? In particular, what is the explanation for the incresae in lending during the financial crisis?
The banking sector was at the heart of the credit crunch and it may also be at the heart of the recovery. Too much lending to those who could not repay has now translated into government encouragement and targets to stimulate further lending. Banks made a deal with the government (Project Merlin) to lend £76bn to small and medium sized companies (SMEs) in 2011, however, the data for the first quarter of 2011 shows that the top five UK banks lent only £16.8bn, some £2.2bn short of their quarterly target (about 12%). Despite this sum still being a significant figure, small companies have said that they are still finding it difficult to obtain credit from banks. A poll found 44% of companies that asked for a loan were turned down and many were discouraged from even applying as they had almost no chance.
Encouraging banks to lend and hence stimulating investment by businesses may prove crucial to the UK’s recovery. Vince Cable’s words with regard to lending emphasise its importance:
“We will monitor the banks’ performance extremely closely and if they fail to meet the commitments they have agreed we will examine options for further action.”
If small businesses can obtain credit, it will help them to develop and expand and this should have knock on effects on the rest of the economy. Jobs could be created, giving more people an income, which in turn should stimulate consumption, further investment and finally aggregate demand. It may not be the case that the UK’s recovery is entirely dependent on bank lending, but it could certainly play an important role, hence the government’s insistence for further lending. It may also act to create confidence in the economy. The following articles consider the bank’s role in providing credit to SMEs.
Bank lending falling short of promises by £25m a day Mail Online, Becky Barrow (24/5/11)
Cable tells banks to increase lending to small firms BBC News (23/5/11)
Bank lending targets: What the experts say Guardian, Alex Hawkes (23/5/11)
Major banks fail to meet their lending targets Independent, Sean Farrell (24/5/11)
Banks on course to miss small business lending target Guardian, Philip Inman (23/5/11)
Project Merlin needs to be less woolly and more wizard Guardian, Nils Pratley (23/5/11)
Bankers caused the crash and now they strangle recovery Guardian, Polly Toynbee (27/5/11)
Trends in Lending Bank of England (see in particular, Lending to UK Businesses)
- Why have banks not met their lending targets for the first quarter of 2011?
- Why is project Merlin so potentially important to the recovery of the economy?
- Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the possible effects of further lending.
- Are there any possible adverse consequences of too much lending?
- Why might banks have little incentive to increase their lending to SMEs?