Rising household debt: a real risk to the economy?

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While household debt is still below its pre-crisis levels, it began to rise relative to incomes in early 2015 and remains high by historical and international standards, according to the Bank of England.

With the current uncertainty surrounding the economy following the EU referendum, there are concerns that household indebtedness could present a big risk to the UK economy.

So what do the statistics mean and just what impact could they have on the economy? A recent House of Commons briefing paper highlights the latest statistics and forecasts for household debt in the UK, including international comparisons, and the effects on the economy.

The statistics

The level of household debt more than doubled from £725 billion in early 2000 to £1,600 billion in late 2008. The global financial crisis resulted in a decline in the household debt-to-income ratio, however, from 168% at its peak in early 2008 to just over 140% in recent years. The levels of debt have increased again over the last couple of years, with annual rates of growth of around 3% recorded since 2014.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that the household debt-to-income ratio will increase in coming years, peaking at 167% at the start of 2020, close to the pre-recession peak. However, this has been revised down on earlier forecasts, such as December 2014, when it was forecast to reach just under 184%.

Despite these increases, the costs of household debt is expected to remain low relative to household income, and much lower than pre-recession levels, due to continued low interest rates. As a result, the debt burden is more affordable for households.

Benefits

The negative effects of debt on individuals has been highly publicised, but low levels of household debt can also provide benefits to individuals and the economy, as highlighted in the briefing paper:

“It allows people to buy things, like a house, that they would not be able to pay for in one go, raising their standard of living. In other words, it allows people to smooth their consumption over time, including during periods when their incomes temporarily fall. This can provide stability to the economy.”

Consumer spending can obviously be good news for retailers and the high street and high levels of mortgage approvals is good for the housing market.

The paper highlights evidence that the accumulation of household debt from 1996 to 2003 contributed to economic growth, with indebted households adding roughly 0.35% points a year to overall consumer spending growth of about 4.5% per year over this period. So a total of 2.5% was added to the level of consumer spending from 1996 to 2003.

Nevertheless, higher levels of debt can make households more vulnerable if an economic downturn occurs. And as the briefing paper shows, the households most likely to have debt (excluding mortgages) are those in the lower wealth quintiles – who are already vulnerable.

Economic impact

As the Bank of England has warned, the ability of some households to service their debts would be challenged by a period of weaker employment and income growth, which could have a wider economic impact through reduced expenditure. And higher interest rates may also lead to further reductions.

This could then have a knock-on effect on businesses which, faced with reduced revenues, may have to cut back on costs such as labour costs by reducing wages or the workforce.

Indeed, research on the impact of household debt on the economy highlighted in the briefing paper suggests that large increases in household debt prior to recessions tend to lead to longer and more severe downturns. And this is as a result of households with high debt levels cutting back on their spending by more than other households during and after a recession.

According to a 2012 OECD working paper, high debt levels can create vulnerabilities by impairing the ability of households and companies to smooth their spending and investment.  The paper also found that when household debt levels rise above trend, so does the likelihood of recession.

Other research has also found that large increases in household debt have preceded more severe and protracted recessions. And recovery following a recession was found to be typically slower in countries that carry the legacy of a large private credit boom.

Final thoughts

So it would seem that perhaps a certain extent of household indebtedness is good for individuals and the economy, in terms of maintaining growth. But when it rises above a certain level in relation to incomes, the evidence suggests it becomes a serious concern.

And with the current economic uncertainty, increasing household debt isn’t something to be ignored.


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