The more we are told UK household debt is not a problem the more worried we should be

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by Shaun Richards

We have reached a stage where the UK establishment is paying more and more attention to household debt issues. This reminds me of the explanation of the bureaucratic response to such issues explained by Yes Prime Minister. All we have to do is switch from foreign to economic policy. From imdb.com.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Then we follow the four-stage strategy.

Bernard Woolley: What’s that?

Sir Richard Wharton: Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis.

Sir Richard Wharton: In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.

Sir Richard Wharton: In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we *can* do.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.

The other part of the strategy or game is to make it appear that you are on the case which these days in monetary or economic policy is summed up by the use of the word vigilant which seems set to become a metaphor for anything but in the way that Forward Guidance has become.

The Financial Conduct Authority

The Director of Supervision at the FCA Jonathan Davidson told us this yesterday,

The consumer credit sector is by far and away our largest sector in terms of number of firms with almost 40,000 firms registered with the FCA. And as a sector you have been growing – according to the Bank of England, consumer credit grew 9.3% over the last year.

Regular readers will of course be aware of this and we have looked at the issues below too.

After all, none of us can forget the context in which we are operating. Total credit lending to individuals is currently very close to its September 2008 peak. The circumstances are different now than 10 years ago, but there are still worrying numbers of householders who may still be in too deep. For example, 1 in 5 mortgages today are interest only mortgages, many of which were made at the height of the credit boom to borrowers with little equity in their homes and not a lot of disposable income. And they won’t mature until about 2032.

Indeed the circumstances are different as for example real wages are lower but I am not entirely sure that is what he means! The reminder about the scale of interest-only mortgages does make me think that an establishment solution for that would be to push house prices higher, oh hang on! If we look around we see that such a policy has worked in the south-east and other areas but would be struggling for example in Northern Ireland. As to affordability I guess Mr, Davdson would point us to this from the Office for National Statistics.

The median equivalised household disposable income in the UK was £27,300 in the financial year ending (FYE) 2017. After taking account of inflation and changes in household structures over time, the median disposable income has increased by £600 (or 2.3%) since FYE 2016 and is £1,600 higher than the pre-economic downturn level observed in FYE 2008.

Of course the aggregate numbers can hide trouble.

The Bank of England’s Financial Stability Report last year noted that consumer credit has grown rapidly and that, relative to incomes, household debt is high. And there are a significant number of households that are in so deep that the slightest sign of rough weather could see them in over their heads.

If we go back to the press conference back then Governor Carney told us this.

So there are pockets of risk, consumer credit is a pocket of risk, it’s been growing quite rapidly.

That made him sound a little like the “pocketses” of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, Unfortunately this was not followed up as the press corps was only really interested in Brexit but here are the numbers from the report.

The total stock of UK household debt in 2017 Q2 was
£1.6 trillion, comprising mortgage debt (£1.3 trillion),
consumer credit (£0.2 trillion) and student loans (£0.1 trillion). It is equal to 134% of household incomes , high by historical standards but below its 2008 peak of 147%. Excluding student debt, the aggregate household debt to income ratio is 18 percentage points below its 2008 peak.

Fascinating isn’t it that they continue the campaign to exclude student debt from the numbers. Maybe it is because it is growing so fast or maybe like me they feel most of it will never be repaid. But in my view you cannot ignore it because it is having effects and implications right now. Also there is the false implication that just because the numbers are not quite as bad as 2008 we can sing along with Free.

All right now, baby, it’s a-all right now.
All right now, baby, it’s a-all right now

Interest-Only Mortgages

Oh and if these are an issue then  genuinely vigilant regulators might be on the case here.

However, since reaching a low-point in 2016, the interest-only market is starting to show signs of life again as lenders re-enter the market………However more recently, there are signs that lenders are starting to expand interest-only lending again, which rose to £5.4bn in Q3 2017, a 45% increase on the previous year. ( Bank Underground).

Everything is fine

Back in January research from the Bank of England via Bank Underground told us everything is fine.

Insight 1: Credit growth has not been driven by subprime borrowers

Insight 2: People without mortgages have mainly driven credit growth

Insight 3: Consumers remain indebted for longer than product-level data implies

I have to confess I am always somewhere between cautious and dubious about such detailed analysis I have seen it go wrong and more often than not spectacularly wrong so often. After all the “liar loans” pre credit crunch would have officially looked good. Also the authors seem keen to cover all the bases.

But vulnerabilities remain. Consumers remain indebted for longer than previously thought. And renters with squeezed finances may be an increasingly important (and vulnerable) driver of growth in consumer credit.

Motor Finance

See also  Biden should be banned on all social media for spreading misinformation!

Mr.Davidson offered some reassuring words on this subject.

The growth of PCP contracts in the motor finance market is a good example of an innovation that has had a significant impact………

So financing of car ownership has become more affordable, allowing more consumers to have more expensive cars. Indeed, the number of point-of-sale consumer motor finance agreements for new and used cars has nearly doubled from around 1.2m in 2008 to around 2.3m in 2017.

This type of innovation, and business model diversity, paints a really attractive picture of your industry.

Is it a miracle? Well please now re-read the quote using the definition of innovation from my financial lexicon for these times which was taught us by the Irish banks which is claimed triumph followed by disaster. I guess such thoughts will be reinforced by this bit.

It is important to me that we continue this innovation in the sector,

Also although he does not say it I am for some reason reminded of Royal Bank of Scotland by this.

A key observation and concern for us is that there are some business models for which customers who can’t afford to repay the principal are profitable, sometimes very profitable

Comment

There is much to consider here and let me give you a clear theme. Individual speeches are welcome and well done to Mr.Davidson but a succession of them means that the establishment is not  preparing us for moonlight and music and love and romance but rather

There may be trouble ahead……..

There may be teardrops to shed

Whilst they will be mulling this line.

Before the fiddlers have fled,

If we consider the overall position the reverse argument to mine is that collectively the debt is affordable and in theory and up in the clouds with the Ivory Towers it is. But when we return to earth reality is invariably far less convenient as this from Mr,Davidson’s speech suggests.

We are also seeing younger people borrowing a lot more relative to their incomes than my, baby boomer, generation. Why is this? It’s because of:More student borrowing. Our financial lives survey showed that 30% of 25-34 year olds have a Student Loan Company loan. The higher cost of getting onto the housing ladder. Shifting patterns of savings, borrowing and consumption. You don’t need to wait, you can have it now.

 

Among 25-34 year olds, 19% have no savings whatsoever, and a further 30% have less than a £1000 saved to use on a rainy day. Indeed, 36% had been overdrawn in the last 12 months.

At the same time, the number of self-employed people in the UK has risen by more than 1.5m since the turn of the century (a 45% increase), and more than 900 thousand people currently are on zero-hours contracts. The gig economy is growing strongly.

When bubbles blow up or pockets develop holes in them it is invariably something relatively small that is the trigger. The consequences however are usually widespread.

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