Yesterday the Resolution Foundations launched a report on Household Debt in the UK. It is, as one would expect of them, excellent. I was on the panel at its launch and had a chance to say a few words. I had prepared bullet points to guide me, and at the suggestion of Tony Yates have typed these into actual sentences, adding also a couple of footnotes and a chart to give a bit more substance to comments that might in retrospect have lacked context. I spoke for nine minutes, and you can actually watch the whole event (including very good presentations by Matt Whittaker, Jan Vlieghe and Sian Williams) here.

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Debt is a web of contracts that binds our social and economic lives together. As such, household debt is not only interesting, but important. Its importance can be seen at a very human level, and bodies like Toynbee Hall do great work in ensuring that the profile of this very human aspect to debt is rightly prominent. But it is important also to our understanding of the macroeconomy, the stability of the financial system, and our understanding of the nature of monetary policy.

Discussing household debt is a strange thing to do at an aggregate level. By this I mean that it makes absolutely no sense to think about it as if it was attached to a representative household. Evenly distributed in a closed economy, no level of debt is unsustainable or unserviceable. But, evenly distributed, debt is also functionless.*

Another complication in thinking about household debt from a representative household perspective is that – unlike a household – changes in savings rates and gross debt, while individually important for activity, are entirely unrelated at an aggregate level.** Instead, Household debt appears to be largely a distributional issue for the household sector – intermediated by the financial sector.

However, changes to household debt have a variety of important macroeconomic and policy, as well as human, implications.

Starting first with the economy, it is pretty straightforward that changes in household debt are important to demand. Given the relatively self-contained nature of household debt, rising debt looks – from an empirical perspective – like a transfer from households with a low marginal propensity to consume (MPC) to households with a high MPC. The chart below the level of monetary assets and monetary liabilities residing in the household sector over the last twenty years. When the blue dots are above the orange line, the UK household sector has net monetary liabilities that exceed net monetary assets. To be clear, this does not include non-monetary assets like housing, equity, land, and other stuff. It’s just monetary or pseudo-monetary assets.*** An observation one might make is that monetary assets and liabilities are around the same level as one another, and so while the reality will be messier, we might think of household debt as being on a net basis an intra-sector distributional issue.

Household monetary assets vs household monetary liabilities, 1997-2016

When a rise in aggregate consumer demand has been accompanied by a rise in household debt we can and should ask to what extent such a move upward in debt load might be sustainable. Having a sense as to how this debt growth has been distributed amongst different debtors, what form this debt takes, and how vulnerable the debt service is to changing short term interest rates is helpful – and the report helps us understand better these things.

Secondly, changes and levels in household debt have important implications for financial system integrity. One person’s debt is another person’s asset, and as such, a precarious debt load is not an issue only for the indebted, but for the owners of capital. The relatively self-contained nature of household debt, intermediated by the financial system, means that higher debt loads lead to more counterparty risk. And this counterparty risk is likely to concentrate in financial institutions.

Indeed, many of the recent financial crises and recessions have been characterised by a series of debt contracts that we have ‘known’ as having low-credit risk characteristics suddenly being revealed as having high credit-risk characteristics (the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis, structured credit during the Global Financial Crisis, the dotcom/ Anderson credit bust, and the Savings and Loan Crisis to name but a few). As Mark Twain put it with somewhat greater panache: ‘What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so’. The Resolution Foundation report and much of the work that the Bank has done on UK household debt points to there being no great threat today, and from what I see I would agree. Whether this take is wrong will be a matter of record.

Thirdly, changes to household debt can tell us something about the appropriate stance for monetary policymakers (in ways only tangentially related to point one). Claudio Borio of the BIS outlined the issue nicely in a 2013 paper when he asked whether, in seeking to understand whether an economy is operating beyond trend, monetary policymakers should consider both inflation and the growth in private sector credit as signs that the economy was operating above potential growth. Jan Vlieghe in his speech to the SBE conference in 2017 argued that information about the location of the equilibrium rate of interest might be embedded in directional changes in household debt load. But changes in financial depth and the arrival of things like PCP finance that might just be a step change in the way we purchase things – that the report highlights as accounting for much of the UK consumer credit growth in the past couple of years – might be important to consider as part of these frameworks.

So in summary, this report’s analysis is really welcome. It helps us to better understand the changes in household debt and lifts the bonnet on important distributional issues. I agree with its findings that household debt does not look – today – to represent a threat to financial market stability and it makes a strong case that the credit surge does not appear to be associated with a dangerous over-extension among families least able to bear higher debt loads sustainably. And it highlights the pinch points for the future, which as one might have guessed sit with the more financially fragile households.

However, I wonder to what extent the transmission mechanism of monetary is to effect transfers from those households with high MPCs to those with low MPCs, crushing demand from indebted households – as suggested by James Cloyne et al in their 2016 Working Paper (although admittedly they said that this aspect was swamped by general equilibrium impacts of rate changes). Will an enhanced understanding as to the real human cost of rising rates change policymaker reaction functions?

 

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Pesky footnotes: probably the most interesting bit of the blog.
* If you and I each create an IOU due in two years time for £1 trillion and hand them to one another, both assets and debts are created. The magnitude of this act of asset and debt creation us such that UK household debt would – in aggregate – more than double. But because we each held the means to service our enormous individual debts (in the form of our enormous individual assets, which consist of claims on each other), the debt is utterly serviceable and sustainable. It is also functionless.

Really interestingly, Chakraborty et al put out an amazing paper algo-guessing a complete loan-level data set in December last year. I really recommend people read it here

** I didn’t understand this for the first twenty years of my career. I tend to think of savings as claims on others (eg, monetary assets). But, using the logic of the ONS Blue Book:

The household savings ratio is equal to the net change in claims on other sectors [i.e. change in household net lending/ borrowing number (NSSZ)] plus the cost of building new homes [ok, it’s actually the total gross capital formation number (NSSX), but that’s basically the same thing], plus a tiny number that hardly registers [aka, the acquisition less disposals of non-produced non-financial assets (NSSY)], all divided by total household resources (NSSF). To be more specific, it is these codes but particular to the household sector rather than the household + NPISH sector, but I don’t have them to hand, and they are pretty much the same numbers.

Household debt is the sum of all of the debt liabilities of households.

So – and quite logically – if Bank X creates a deposit through lending £20 to Household X, so that Household X can buy a service (let’s say a haircut) from Household Y (who then saves it), total debt rises by £20, but there is no change in the household savings ratio. There has been an expansion of the total household balance sheet, and an intra-household-sector change in the distribution of monetary assets and liabilities.

*** Household monetary assets are defined here households’ holdings of money, debt securities, and other accounts payable, plus non-life insurance technical reserves; household monetary liabilities consist of loans and accounts payable.