Household wealth in Ireland: results from the 2018 HFCS survey

Guest post by David Horan (Central Bank of Ireland). Disclaimer: this blog post represents the author’s views and not those of the Central Bank of Ireland or the European System of Central Banks.

The Central Bank has published a Research Technical Paper on household wealth in Ireland: “Household wealth: what is it, who has it, and why it matters” (Horan, Lydon & McIndoe-Calder).

The paper uses data from the latest wave of the Household Finance and Consumption Survey (HFCS 2018) to track changes in the financial position of Irish households between 2013 (the last survey) and 2018. The CSO carries out the survey in Ireland. It is part of a wider cross-country project examining household wealth, income and consumption, coordinated by the ECB.

While carried out prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the HFCS survey provides insights into issues relevant to the assessment of the economic impact of the pandemic on Irish households. For example, the data highlight the improved financial position and resilience of households prior to the COVID-19 crisis, than was the case leading into 2008. Moreover, these data highlight distributional considerations and differences between households that align with the asymmetrical effects the COVID-19 induced economic shock has had on households, including along age, employment sector and housing tenure status dimensions.

Key developments between 2013 and 2018
When comparing changes between 2013 and 2018, it is important to consider the economic context under which both surveys were conducted. In many respects, 2013 reflects the low point of the recession following the financial crisis; by 2018 the economic recovery was well underway. With this in mind, it may come as little surprise that the financial position of many households in Ireland improved considerably between waves.

We observe that household net wealth grew by over €76,000 for the median household – or by 74 per cent – to €179,200 between 2013 and 2018.  House price growth and declining mortgage debt were the primary drivers of this development.

Net wealth increased across the entire wealth distribution, while inequality, as measured by the gini coefficient, fell between waves. Key to this was the decline in negative equity, which fell from 33 per cent of mortgaged households in 2013 to 4 per cent in 2018. Median gross household income surpassed its previous peak in 2007, reaching €47,700 in 2018. Combining household wealth and income, we find the two are closely linked and that relatively higher income households also tend to be wealthier households — although the relationship is not one-for-one. 

Economic implications
Compared to 2013, households were more resilient in 2018, with debt to asset and debt to income ratios falling significantly between survey waves. These improvements are particularly pronounced for those between 30 and 49 years of age. The debt service burden – the cost of servicing debt repayments to (gross) income – has also fallen since 2013, primarily due to rising incomes. Net liquid assets – the sum of liquid assets less non-collateralised debt – are a commonly used financial buffer metric. The proportion of Irish households with net liquid assets increased to 72.6 per cent in 2018, while the median value of these financial resources increased from €2,000 to €3,000 2018.

To better understand the resilience of indebted households to negative shocks, Table 1 shows the proportion of households by debt-service bucket in 2018, where savings account for at least three mortgage payments. Over two thirds (67.8%) of lower debt service households – that is households with mortgage repayments less than 5% of their gross income – have savings at least three times that of their regular mortgage repayments. Looking at households with the highest debt service ratio (>40% of income), we find that 42% of these households have savings of at least three times that of their regular mortgage repayment.

Turning to household spending patterns, we find that the gross income share that households regularly spend on goods, services and housing varies substantially by income. The average household spends about 80 per cent of their income. Those in the bottom income quantile, on average, report spending more than their income on regular expenses. For the 13% of households that report having expenses greater than their income, typical strategies employed to bridge the gap include using savings, especially for middle income households; getting help from friends and family, especially for lower income households; and using credit cards and overdrafts.

In line with other data sources, homeownership rates have fallen while the share of those renting accommodation has risen. Over 60 per cent of recent owner-occupier home-buyers were under the age of 40 at time of purchase. Almost 30 per cent of recent buyers report receiving an inheritance or gift within three years of their house purchase with a median value of €25,000 (self-reported). The prevalence of inheritance was lower for older borrowers, however the amounts they received tended to be higher.

House price developments play a key role in changes in the net wealth position of Irish households. The ‘collateral channel’ argues that wealthier households have easier credit access. We do find that households are less credit constrained in 2018, which holds true for younger and older households, and for homeowners and renters. Although we cannot rule-out improvements on the supply-side as a driver of this development.

In the mid-2000s, housing equity was used by many households to fund both consumer spending (often on durables) and investment (often in more housing). This peaked in 2006/07, when the value of housing equity withdrawal for the household sector was equivalent to some 10 per cent of income. When house prices fell sharply, this had real effects on spending and investment. In the paper we show that, despite housing wealth in 2018 exceeding previous highs, the household sector as a whole continues to inject as opposed to withdraw equity. In 2018, injections were running at around 10 per cent of income (Figure 1). This reasons for relatively large ‘injections’ include the continued repayment of long-lived, large debts from the early-/mid-2000s, and a far lower level of top-up borrowing relative to the past.

The paper highlights several potential areas of future research using the HFCS data*. For example, we provide useful insights into how households can withstand unexpected income shocks and the financial resilience of households, which are particularly relevant in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

In many respects, we can see that households are better placed going into 2020 than they were leading into the last crisis in 2008. Given the healthier position of many household balance sheets in 2018. Our work indicates that, if house prices and/or incomes falls, we would not expect household debt to drag on spending in the same way it did going in to 2008. Incomes developments are therefore likely to be the primary determinant of consumer spending when the public health threat from COVID-19 recedes. Understanding the distribution of income shocks within the context of household wealth and income position will be important going forward.  

(*) Datasets for research and analysis are available from both the CSO (the HFCS RMF) and the ECB. The ECB dataset also includes cross-country data for most countries.

Central Bank Quarterly Bulletin 3 2020

Guest post by Stephen Byrne, Central Bank of Ireland

Today the Bank published its third Quarterly Bulletin of the year. The report contains a detailed overview of developments in the economy since the publication of last Bulletin in early April as well as our latest macroeconomic forecasts out to 2022.

Given the scale of uncertainty surrounding the economic impact of Covid-19, two different scenarios for the economic outlook are outlined in the Bulletin (see featured image above).

In the “baseline” scenario, the economy reopens in line with the Government’s phased plan, allowing for a rebound in economic activity in the second half of the year. Some containment measures would remain in place meaning that activity would be constrained in some sectors for a longer period. Beyond the initial rebound, recovery is expected to be gradual, in line with a slow unwinding of precautionary behaviour as the effects of the shock on consumers and businesses lingers. The unemployment rate is set to decline from its second quarter peak of about 25 per cent as the year progresses and is projected be around half that level by the end of this year, before averaging just over 9 per cent next year and 7 per cent in 2022.

The baseline scenario sees output recovering to its pre-crisis level by 2022. However, the level of activity will be significantly below where it would have been had the economy grown in line with expectations before the outbreak of the pandemic.

In the “severe” scenario, the strict lockdown period is assumed to have a more damaging impact on economic activity and is not successful in effectively containing the virus. Stringent containment measures would remain in place, or would be re-instated, albeit not as severe as before, based on an assumption that there would be a resurgence of the virus at some point over the next year. In this scenario, there is a subdued economic recovery with a larger permanent loss of output. Unemployment remains higher for longer in this scenario and would average just below 17 per cent in 2020, while consumer spending is projected to fall by around 14 per cent and GDP by over 13 per cent this year. In this scenario, the projected recovery in growth in 2021 and 2022 would not offset the loss of output this year, leaving the level of GDP in 2022 about 5 per cent below its pre-crisis level.

Both of these scenarios assume that a Free trade agreement in goods between the UK and the EU, with no tariffs and quotas on goods, takes effect in January 2021. If such an agreement is not reached, then the EU and the UK would move to trading on WTO terms from January 2021. Box D of the Bulletin discusses the implications of such an outcome.

The bulletin also contains analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on debt dynamics and sustainability, as well as a detailed examination of the regional labour market impacts of the pandemic.

Finally, an accompanying signed article explores alternative long-term recovery paths for the economy and assesses the impact of fiscal and monetary policy supports. The Article considers how hysteresis – or scarring ­­– effects could influence the pace and nature of the recovery. The paper shows that, as a highly open economy, Ireland benefits from the positive effects of monetary and fiscal policy measures implemented abroad. The assessment of the combined effects of domestic and international policy supports indicates that the actions will help to meaningfully reduce the scale of the output loss in Ireland from the pandemic.

New ‘Economics of Property Market’ online course at TCD

There is widespread agreement that Ireland lacks the housing policy expertise to solve its current housing woes. For example, Donal MacManus of the Irish Council of Social Housing made the case recently for third-level education in housing, given the small number of people with accredited housing policy expertise in this country.

To help address this skills gap, Trinity have developed an online course entitled The Economics of the Property Market. It is aimed largely at professionals without any formal training in economics whose work involves property/housing, including valuers, architects, engineers, solicitors and accountants, but is open to anyone with an interest in the property market.

The online course takes place April-June and comprises four sessions, which look separately at: understanding markets; the demand for property; the supply of property; and the economics of property market policy. More information, and a link to sign up for the course, is given at this link:

The deadline for registering is Friday April 13th, the course is live on April 30 and all participants are expected to complete the four sessions within six weeks. Those who have further questions can contact me (firstname.surname at

Household formation among young adults

A guest post from Reamonn Lydon and Apostolos Fasianos of the Irish Economic Analysis division here at the Bank.

The overall population increased by 4% between 2008 and 2016. At the same time, the number of young adults aged between 20 and 34 fell by a quarter– from 1.15 million to 860 thousand (see Table 1. See also the excellent study by Glynn, Kelly and MacEinrí (2015) on migration patterns for this group).

Table 1 CSO population estimates (Table PEA01)
 (`000s) 2008 2016 % change
Age <20 1209 1327.4 9.8%
20-24 373.6 226.8 -39.3%
25-34 777.8 633.6 -18.5%
35-44 662.2 733.2 10.7%
45-64 978.9 1127.2 15.1%
65+ 483.7 625.5 29.3%
4485.2 4673.7 4.2%

The large decline in the 20-34 population means that housing demand will be lower than the past.  However, there have also been significant changes in the household formation patterns of this group which are relevant when it comes to thinking about housing demand in the future.  As the figure below shows, just before the property crash just over 30% of young adults lived with parents, but by 2016 this had risen 37%.  Taking into account the population drop, this is around an additional 25,000 young adults versus the situation in 2006, and just under 320,000 in total living with parents in 2016.

F1Census data for 2016 is not yet available to calculate the latest figures, so we have drawn on the QNHS and Household Finance and Consumption Survey (HFCS, 2013) to try and complete the picture to 2016.  The HFCS is particularly useful as it allows us compare Ireland with other countries (Figure 2).  Ireland looks similar to both the EU and US (although the US data is for 18-34 year olds living with relatives, not just parents), but is somewhat higher than the UK. We know, however, that UK third level students are more likely than their Irish counterparts to live away from home.  Southern European countries, with relatively high rates of youth unemployment – such as Spain, Portugal and Italy tend to have a higher proportion of young adults living with their parents.


What do these figures mean for housing demand?

The answer depends on the extent to which you believe the shift towards more young adults living at home is a cyclical or a structural change. Certainly, there is a slow-moving cyclical part to it – the proportion rose as the employment prospects for this group worsened and young people stayed on in education (Conefrey, 2011).  The CSO also reported a sharp drop in the proportion of 19-24 year-olds in shared accommodation (i.e. renting), from 22 to 18% between 2006 and 2011.  So there may be a jump in demand in the short term, because not only do the delayed entrants want to enter the market after a (cyclical) delay, but those who are younger will now start forming households at a younger age.  There is already some evidence of this in the 2016 QNHS, which shows the percentage of 20-24 year olds living at home falling for the first time in almost 10 years, from 70 to 68%.

However, there might also be structural changes to consider. For example, if the easy credit of the bubble years meant that buyers got on the housing ladder at a younger age than previously, and this has since been reversed, then the ‘pent-up’ demand might not be so large.  We know that the average age of FTBs has risen in recent years, having fallen during the boom.  In this case, young adults could continue to form households at a rate similar to what we are now seeing.

In all likelihood, the shifts we have witnessed are a mix of cyclical and structural changes. However, how much is cyclical does matter. As Table 1 showed, there were just over 860,000 20-34 year-olds in 2016. Ignoring immigration flows which could increase the size of this age cohort further, each 1% fall in the proportion living at home means an additional 8,600 individuals looking to rent or buy. This is a large figure in the context of current estimates for annual housing demand, which range from 20,000 and 40,000 units.

Funding social housing through bust, boom and bust

There is a lot of debate about the impact of the shortage of social housing at the moment, so I thought that this UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy working paper on the funding of this sector might be of interest:

In it my colleague Mick Byrne and I argue that the causes of our current difficulties in funding and delivering social housing are older and more complex than is commonly understood.  Rather than policy decisions made during our most recent economic crisis, they are the result of reforms to social housing financing methods initiated during our last major economic crisis in the mid 1980s.

For most of the 20th Century social housing was funded by local government borrowing which were repaid using rents (which reflected the cost of providing housing), rates (local government property taxes) and central government subsidies.  This financing method made social housing delivery affordable for government by spreading out the cost over an extended period and drawing on several sources of funding.  This enabled government to build large numbers of social rented dwellings even during periods when the economy was weak such as the 1950s and to use social house building as a counter cyclical economic intervention.

The replacement of this funding method with central government capital grants as part of Ray MacSharry’s package of budgetary reforms in 1987 changed social housing into a pro cyclical intervention.  From then on central government has paid all the cost of building/buying social housing in an up-front lump sum and to paraphrase another finance minister this meant that ‘when we have it we spend it’ and vice versa.  In relative terms social housing output was well below historic norms in the 1990s; although it rose again during the property boom, the value for money achieved in return for housing investment at this time is open to question and of course output collapsed in tandem with the economic collapse from 2007.  Inadequate social housing output also necessitated increased reliance on rent supplements and other housing allowances for benefit dependent private renting tenants which help to inflate rents and enabled the radical expansion in buy-to-let lending which was a key driver of the house price boom.

Merry Christmas and happy new year everyone.  I hope 2017 will finally see homes provided for those who are without them this Christmas.