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?
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!
Housing market on a knife edge with no sign of sustained recovery in lending Independent, David Prosser (3/6/10)
UK mortgage lending edges higher BBC News (2/6/10)
Mortgage data raise housing recovery fears Financial Times, Norma Cohen (2/6/10)
Mixed lending data point to stagnant housing markets Reuters (2/6/10)
Mortgage approvals slightly higher Press Association (3/6/10)
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 does a negative net lending figure indicate?
- If net lending is negative does this mean that the stock of debt is falling?
- What factors might be driving households to consolidate their finances?
- Discuss the potential economic benefits and dangers of households consolidating their finances.
- Of what significance is the extent of the household sector’s consolidation of its finances for: (i) the government and (ii) the Bank of England?