The academic literature finds that the build-up of household debt before the 2008 financial crisis is linked to weaker consumption afterwards. But there is wider debate over the mechanisms at play. One strand of literature emphasises debt overhang acting through the level of leverage. Others find it was over-optimism acting through leverage growth. In this post, we revisit our previous analysis on leverage and consumption in the UK using synthetic cohort analysis. The correlation between leverage measures and their link to other macroeconomic variables mean it’s challenging to tease out their effects. Yet we find that whilst both mechanisms played a role, there is evidence that debt overhang linked to a tighter credit constraints was the bigger driver.
How is household consumption affected by borrowing constraints in the mortgage market? In a new paper, we answer this question by studying the UK’s Help to Buy (HTB) program over the period 2014–16. The program facilitated home purchases with only a 5% down payment and resulted in a sharp relaxation of the down-payment constraint. We show that HTB boosted household consumption in addition to stimulating housing market activity. Home purchases increased by 11%, and the increase was driven almost entirely by first-time and young buyers. In addition, household consumption grew by 5% more in parts of the UK more exposed to the program. Relaxing the down payment constraint thus has important macroeconomic effects that extend beyond the housing market.
Sinem Hacioglu Hoke, Diego Kaenzig and Paolo Surico
The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has included closure of retail outlets and social distancing. How large was the resulting consumption fall in the UK? In a new paper, we try to answer this question using a transaction-level dataset of over 8 million individual transactions. This gives a near-real time read on consumer spending, without the publication lags associated with national accounts consumption data. We find that the bulk of the fall had occurred before legally mandated lockdown started. The largest declines occurred in retail, restaurants and transport, but spending on some items such as online shopping, alcohol and tobacco rose. There is substantial variation in change in consumption across age, income group, housing tenure and local authority.
Matteo Benetton, Philippe Bracke, João F Cocco and Nicola Garbarino
Academics have made the case for mortgage products with equity features, so that gains and losses due to fluctuations in house values are shared between the household and an outside investor. In theory, the equity component expands the set of affordable properties, without increasing household debt, and default risk. These products have not become mainstream, but in a recent paper, we study a large UK experiment with equity-based housing finance — the Help To Buy Equity Loan scheme. We find that equity loans are mainly used to overcome credit constraints, rather than to reduce investment risk. Unconstrained household prefer mortgage debt over equity loans, suggesting optimism about house price risk. Equity loans could still contribute to house price inflation: we don’t find evidence that houses purchased with equity loans are overpriced, but an assessment of the aggregate effects is beyond the scope of the paper.
Rising inflation is eroding the spending power of UK households’ incomes. How will they react to that? The answer will make a big difference to the economic outlook. Will they dip into savings and carry on buying the same amount of goods and services, or will they just spend the same and be able to buy less with it? New survey evidence suggests that households intend to do a bit of both with nominal spending increasing by around half of the rise in prices but real consumption also falling. But not all households say they will respond in the same way: households with debts and limited savings to fall back on are less likely to be able to increase spending. Continue reading “How will households react to the real income squeeze?”→
Economic theory generally assumes that more consumption means greater happiness. This post puts forward an alternative, “less is more” perspective based around the concept of mindfulness. It argues that we may achieve greater happiness by seeking to simplify our desires, rather than satisfy them. The result – less consumption but greater wellbeing – could be especially important for debates around secular stagnation and ecological sustainability.