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.
Weak mortgage lending set to undermine house prices Independent, David Prosser (5/5/10)
Mortgage lending down almost 90% from 2007 peak Guardian, Katie Allen (4/5/10)
Mortgage approvals still sluggish, figures show BBC News (4/5/10)
Mortgage lending stalls this year Telegraph, Harry Wallop (4/5/10)
Lending dip fuels house price fall fears Press Association (4/5/10)
Lending to individuals Bank of England
Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) Bank of England (See Tables A5.1 to A5.7, in particular)
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England
- 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?