I found myself singing this morning which I have to admit is not the most pleasant experience for those in ear-shot. I was singing to the tune of ‘love is all around us’. But rather than the words of the song performed by the Troggs in the late 1960s and by Wet Wet Wet in the 1990s, I found myself singing ‘debt is all around us’. It could easily have been the sub-conscious effect of the headlines relating to government debt (also known as national debt). But, actually it was the effect of having looked at my latest credit card statement and noting the impact that my summer holiday had had on my financial position! Relaxation, so it seems, doesn’t come cheap. With this in mind, I have just taken a look at the latest bank of England figures on British household debt. You can do the same by going to the Bank of England’s statistical release lending to individuals.
The latest figures reveal that at the end of June 2011 households in Britain had a stock of debt of £1.451 trillion. Now this is a big number – not far short of the economy’s annual Gross Domestic Product. But, interestingly, this is its lowest level in three years. Indeed, over the past twelve months the stock of household debt has fallen by £6 billion. This is the result of the sector’s repayment of unsecured debt, such as credit card debt and overdrafts. The stock of unsecured debt has fallen by £8.2 billion or 3.8% over the past year to stand at £209.7 billion.
The remaining £1.241 trillion of household debt is secured debt which is debt secured against property. The stock of secured debt has risen by £2.16 billion over the last 12 months, but this equates to a rise of less than 0.2%. In fact, further evidence from the Bank of England reveals that households are not only looking to reduce their exposure to unsecured debt but to pay off mortgage debt too. You might wonder how this might be occurring given that the stock of mortgage debt has risen, albeit only slightly. 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 money on improving our existing housing stock we acquire more mortgage debt. Bank of England figures show that housing investment has been greater than new secured lending. Consequently, the additions to the stock of lending have been less than housing investment. This gives rise to negative housing equity withdrawal, i.e. negative HEW.
The Bank of England estimates that in Q1 of 2011 there was an increase in housing equity of £5.8 billion. Negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW), an injection of housing equity, has occurred every quarter since Q2 2008. Since then, the UK household sector has injected some £63.7 billion of housing equity. The opportunity cost of this injection is that by increasing equity in property households are using money that could have been used for consumption or for purchasing financial assets. The extent of this negative HEW over the past 12 quarters has been the equivalent to 2.2% of disposable income.
While my credit card may have ballooned this month, it would appear that the household sector is looking to reduce its debt exposure. I will be looking to do likewise!
Housing injection goes on BBC News (4/7/11)
Personal insolvencies rise Independent, Philip Whiterow (5/8/11)
Mortgage boom as homeowners cash in an try reduce debts Independent, Simeon Read (5/7/11)
Homeowners inject £5.8 billion of equity into property in first quarter Telegraph, Emma Rowley (5/7/11)
Housing equity injection continues Guardian, Hilary Osborne (4/7/11)
Lending to individuals statistical release Bank of England
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical release Bank of England
- Illustrate with examples what is meant by secured and unsecured debt.
- What factors might help to explain the longer-term growth in secured and unsecured debt over recent decades?
- What factors might help to explain the more recent patterns in secured and unsecured debt?
- What do you understand by the term housing equity withdrawal?
- What is meant by negative HEW?
- What factors might help to explain the negative HEW observed for the past twelve quarters?
- What implications might there be for economic growth of negative housing equity withdrawal (HEW)?
Each month the Bank of England releases figures on the amount of net lending to households. Net lending measures the additional amount of debt acquired by households in the month and so takes into account the amount of debt that households repay over the month. For some time now, the levels of net lending have been remarkably low. Over the first quarter of 2011, monthly net lending to households averaged £1.2 billion. This might sound like a lot of money and in many ways this is true. But, to put the weakness of this figure into perspective, the monthly average over the past ten years is £7 billion.
Household debt can be categorised as either secured debt or unsecured debt. The former is mortgage debt while the latter includes outstanding amounts due on credit and store cards, overdrafts and personal loans. Levels of net secured lending have averaged £1 billion per month over the first 3 months of 2011. This compares with a 10-year average of £5.8 billion per month. Levels of net unsecured lending have averaged £196 million per month over the first 3 months of 2011. This compares with a 10-year average of £1.2 billion per month. In 12 of the months between December 2008 and January 2011 net unsecured lending was actually negative. This means that the value of repayments was greater than new unsecured lending. Once bad debts are taken into account we observe from the autumn of 2008 almost persistent monthly falls in the stock of unsecured debt.
Weak levels of net lending reflect two significant factors. First, on the supply-side, lending levels remain constrained and credit criteria tight. Second, on the demand-side, households remain anxious during these incredibly uncertain times and would appear to have a very limited appetite for taking on additional credit.
Finally, a note on the stock of debt that we households collectively hold. The stock of household debt at the end of March 2011 was £1.45 trillion. This is £7.2 billion or 0.5% lower than in March 2010. The stock of secured debt has risen over this period by only £2.6 billion or 0.2%, while unsecured debt – also known as consumer credit – has fallen £9.9 billion or 4.5%. These figures help to reinforce the message that British households continue to consolidate their financial positions.
Latest data shows UK economy still sluggish Euronews (4/5/11)
Bank reveals weal lending on mortgages City A.M., Julian Harris (5/5/11)
Mortgage lending plummets by 60% Belfast Telegraph (5/5/11)
Mortgage lending down as borrowers repay debt thisismoney.co.uk (4/5/11)
Average UK household owes more than £50,000 in debts Mirror, Tricia Phillips (6/5/11)
Lending data are available from the Bank of England’s statistics publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) (See Tables A5.2-A5.7).
- What is the difference between gross lending and net lending?
- What do you understand by a negative net lending number?
- What is the difference between net secured lending and net unsecured lending?
- What factors do you think help to explain the recent weakness in net lending?
- How would you expect the net lending figures in a year’s time to compare with those now?
- As of 31 March 2011, UK households had accumulated a stock of debt of £1.45 trillion. In what ways could we put this figure into context? Should we as economists be concerned?
- It is said that households are consolidating their financial position. What do you understand by this term and what factors have driven this consolidation?
- What are the implications for the wider economy of households consolidating their financial position?
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!
Mortgage debt falls for the 10th quarter in a row BBC News (29/12/10)
Homeowners make record mortgage repayments Independent, Hugo Young (30/12/10)
Homeowners reduce their mortgages by £6bn in just three months Telegraph, Louise Armistead (30/12/10)
Homeowners paying off mortgages at faster rate Guardian, Jill Insley (29/12/10)
Homeowners paying back mortgages at rapid rate Daily Mail (29/12/10)
Christmas trading hit by snow, says BRC Financial Times, Chris Giles (11/1/11)
Festive freeze hits sales across the high street Independent, James Thompson (11/1/11)
Shoppers hit hard by inflation Independent (12/11/10)
Families warned by Bank of England of even more painful year ahead Daily Mail, Lucy Farndon (28/12/10)
Shop inflation accelerated in December on commodities, retailers say Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell
Lending to individuals statistical release Bank of England
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical release Bank of England
Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (22/12/10)
Quarterly National Accounts, 3rd Quarter 2010 Office for National Statistics (22/12/10)
UK Economic Accounts, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission
- 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?
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?