Household leverage: US vs. UK

Households in the US and the UK are members of the “most levered club”. But put their balance sheets side-by-side, and the outlook for the US economy looks a little brighter than that for the UK. Why? Both are dropping debt burden, but a qualitative analysis suggests that the UK household leverage (probably) should be falling at a more accelerated pace.

The chart illustrates leverage in the US and UK, or household debt (loans) as a percentage of disposable income (DPI) through Q3 2009 and Q2 2009, respectively (the UK releases Q3 Economic Accounts at the end of December). By Q2 2009, UK and US households dropped leverage rather coincidentally, -4.8% and -4.4%, respectively. However, the debt bubble was bigger in the UK than in the US, peaking at 160% of DPI compared to 131% in the US. Why isn’t leverage falling more quickly? Spending.

To be fair, UK Q3 statistics may paint a very different picture. However, that is unlikely, given that real retail sales continue to grow, 3.2% at an annualized rate in the three months ending in October.

Oh, it all makes sense now: UK retail sales remained firm in 2009, and real home values hit a (probably local rather than global) cyclical low much earlier than in the US.

This is an ominous sign for the UK economy. Households are kicking the can down the road: de-leveraging – paying down debt by dropping consumption and saving a relatively higher share of income – is inevitable.


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