The transmission of monetary policy: The constraints on real estate loans are significant!

By Fergus Cumming (Bank of England) and Paul Hubert (Sciences Po – OFCE, France)

Does the transmission of monetary policy depend on the state of consumers’ debt? In this post, we show that changes in interest rates have a greater impact when a large share of households face financial constraints, i.e. when households are close to their borrowing limits. We also find that the overall impact of monetary policy depends in part on the dynamics of real estate prices and may not be symmetrical for increases and decreases in interest rates.

From the micro to the macro

In a recent article, we use home loan data from the United Kingdom to build a detailed measure of the proportion of households that are close to their borrowing limits based on the ratio of mortgage levels to incomes. This mortgage data allows us to obtain a clear picture of the various factors that motivated people’s decisions about real estate loans between 2005 and 2017. After eliminating effects due to regulation, bank behaviour, geography and other macroeconomic developments, we estimate the relative share of highly indebted households to build a measure that can be compared over time. To do this, we combine the information gathered for 11 million mortgages into a single time series, thus allowing us to explore the issue of the transmission of monetary policy.

We use the time variation in this debt variable to explore whether and how the effects of monetary policy depend on the share of people who are financially constrained. We focus on the response of consumption in particular. Intuitively, we know that a restrictive monetary policy leads to a decline in consumption in the short to medium term, which is why central banks raise interest rates when the economy is overheating. The point is to understand whether this result changes according to the share of households that are financially constrained.

Monetary policy contingent on credit constraints

We find that monetary policy is more effective when a large portion of households have taken on high levels of debt. In the graph below, we show how the consumption of non-durable goods, durable goods and total goods responds to raising the key interest rate by one percentage point. The grey bands (or blue, respectively) represent the response of consumption when there is a large (small) proportion of people close to their borrowing limits. The differences between the blue and grey bands suggest that monetary policy has greater strength when the share of heavily indebted households is high.

It is likely that there are at least two mechanisms behind this differentiated effect: first, in an economy where the rates are partly variable[1], when the amount borrowed by households increases relative to their income, the mechanical effect of monetary policy on disposable income is amplified. People with large loans are penalized by the increase in their monthly loan payments in the event of a rate hike, which reduces their purchasing power and thus their consumption! As a result, the greater the share of heavily indebted agents, the greater the aggregate impact on consumption. Second, households close to their borrowing limits are likely to spend a greater proportion of their income (they have a higher marginal propensity to consume). Put another way, the greater the portion of your income you have to spend on paying down your debt, the more your consumption depends on your income. The change in income related to monetary policy will then have a greater impact on your consumption. Interestingly, we find that our results are due more to the distribution of highly indebted households than to an overall increase in borrowing.

Our results also indicate some asymmetry in the transmission of monetary policy. When the share of constrained households is large, interest rate increases have a greater impact (in absolute terms) than interest rate cuts. This is not completely surprising. When your income comes very close to your spending, running out of money is very different from receiving a small additional windfall.

Our results also suggest that changes in real estate prices have significant effects. When house prices rise, homeowners feel richer and are able to refinance their loans more easily in order to free up funds for other spending. This may offset some of the amortization effects of an interest rate rise. On the other hand, when house prices fall, an interest rate hike exacerbates the contractionary impact on the economy, rendering monetary policy very powerful.

Implications for economic policy

We show that the state of consumers’ debt may account for some of the change in the effectiveness of monetary policy during the economic cycle. However, it should be kept in mind that macro-prudential policy makers can influence the distribution of debt in the economy. Our results thus suggest that there is a strong interaction between monetary policy and macro-prudential policy.


[1] Which is the case in the United Kingdom.

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The OFCE optimistic about growth – “As usual”?

By Magali Dauvin and Hervé Péléraux

In the spring of 2019, the OFCE forecast real GDP growth of 1.5% for 2019 and 1.4% for 2020 (i.e. cumulative growth of 2.9%). At the same time, the average forecast for the two years compiled by Consensus Forecasts[1] was 1.3% each year (i.e. 2.6% cumulative), with a standard deviation around the average of 0.2 points. This difference has led some observers to describe the OFCE forecasts as “optimistic as usual”, with the forecasts of the Consensus or institutes with less favourable projections being considered more “realistic” in the current economic cycle. Continue reading “The OFCE optimistic about growth – “As usual”?”

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The dilemmas of immaterial capitalism

By Sarah Guillou

A review of: Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Capitalism Without Capital. The Rise of the Intangible Economy, Princeton University Press, 2017, 288 pp.

This book is at the crossroads of the debate about the nature of current and future growth. The increasing role of intangible assets is indeed at the heart of questions about productivity gains, the jobs of tomorrow, rising inequality, corporate taxation and the source of future incomes. Continue reading “The dilemmas of immaterial capitalism”

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Which new path for raising labour productivity?

By Bruno Ducoudré and Eric Heyer

The industrialized countries are experiencing what seems to be a persistent slowdown in the growth of labour productivity since the second oil shock. This has been the subject of a great deal of analysis in the economic literature[1] that considers the possible disappearance of the growth potential of the developed economies, and consequently their inability to return to a level of activity in line with their pre-crisis trajectories. In other words, could the industrialized countries have entered a phase of “secular stagnation”, making it more difficult to reduce public and private debt? The exhaustion of gains in productivity would also modify any diagnosis made of their conjunctural situation, particularly as regards their labour markets. Continue reading “Which new path for raising labour productivity?”

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The Janus-Faced Nature of Debt

by Mattia Guerini, Alessio Moneta, Mauro Napoletano, Andrea Roventini

The financial and economic crises of 2008 have been intimately interwined with the dynamics of debt. As a matter of fact, a research by Ng and Wright (2013) reports that in the last thirty years all the U.S. recessions had financial origins. Continue reading “The Janus-Faced Nature of Debt”

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Some clarifications on economic negationism

By Pierre Cahuc and André Zylberberg

We would like to thank Xavier Ragot for permitting us to respond to his comments about our book, Le Négationnisme économique [Economic Negationism]. Like many critics, Xavier Ragot considered that:

1) “The very title of the book proceeds from great violence. This book is on a slippery slope in the intellectual debate that is heading towards a caricature of debate and verbal abuse.”

2) The approach of our work is “scientistic” and “reductive”, with “faith in knowledge drawn from natural experiments” that he doesn’t believe has a “consensus in economics”.

3) We “want to import the hierarchy of academic debate into the public debate”.

We would like to respond to these three allegations, with which we disagree.  Continue reading “Some clarifications on economic negationism”

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“The economic negationism” of Cahuc and Zylberberg: the first-order economy

By Xavier Ragot

The book by Pierre Cahuc and André Zylberberg[1] is an injunction to take scientific truths about economics into account in the public debate, in the face of interventions that conceal private and ideological interests. The book contains interesting descriptions of the results of recent empirical work using natural experiments for the purpose of evaluating economic policies in the field of education, tax policy, the reduction of working hours, etc.

However, assertions in the book that are at the borderline of reason ultimately make it a caricature that is probably counter-productive. More than just the debate over the 35-hour working week or France’s CICE tax credit, what is at stake is the status of economic knowledge in the public debate. Continue reading ““The economic negationism” of Cahuc and Zylberberg: the first-order economy”

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