A dash of data: Spotlight on Dutch households

Florence Wolff, OECD Statistics Directorate

Economic growth (GDP) always gets a lot of attention, but when it comes to determining how people are doing it’s interesting to look at other indicators that focus more on the actual material conditions of households. Let’s focus on a few alternative indicators to see how households in the Netherlands are doing.

GDP and household income

Real household disposable income per capita increased at a slower pace than real GDP per capita in Q3 2016. Whereas real GDP per capita increased by 0.6 % from the previous quarter (the index increased from 102.2 in Q2 2016 to 102.8 in Q3 2016), real household income increased by 0.4% (the index increased from 97.1 in Q2 2016 to 97.5 in Q3 2016). The rise in household disposable income in Q3 2016 was driven by an increase in compensation of employees but this gain was somewhat offset by an increase in taxes, which explains the drop in the net cash transfers to households ratio (chart 2).

Chart 1 also provides a longer-term perspective and shows that Dutch households have yet to recover to their pre-crisis level of household income, which means that households have less purchasing power now than they had before the crisis. Also of note is that household income has been more volatile than GDP and has been trending upward since Q3 2014.

The divergent patterns between household disposable income and GDP are often related to changes in net cash transfers to households (chart 2), from government as well as from pension funds. For instance, government intervention that cushioned households’ material conditions in Q2 2009 resulted in a large increase in net cash transfers to households during that quarter (seen in chart 1 as a sharp increase in real household income in Q2 2009 compared with a slight drop in GDP). Since then, net transfers have been trending downwards slightly, mainly because of government acting to consolidate its finances.

Confidence, consumption and savings

Household disposable income is a meaningful way to assess material living standards, but to get a fuller picture of household material well-being one may also want to look at households’ consumption behaviour. Consumer confidence (chart 3) continued to rise in Q3 2016 (the index increased from 100.4 in Q2 2016 to 100.8 in Q3 2016). Coupled with a rise in real household income, this boosted real household consumption expenditure per capita by 0.7% in Q3 2016 (the index increased from 96.9 in Q2 2016 to 97.6 in Q3 2016) (chart 4). Real household consumption expenditures have been trending up since Q3 2014, in line with a similar trend in household income; however, Dutch households are still buying less goods and services per capita than they were before the crisis.

The households’ savings rate (chart 5), which shows the proportion that households are saving out of current income, was relatively stable at 12.3% in Q3 2016 indicating that Dutch households chose to spend the increase in their income in Q3 2016 on goods and services while preserving the level of their savings. Like in many other OECD countries, it is worth noting that Dutch households increased their savings during the economic crisis (with a peak at 16.9% in Q2 2009) – as a buffer to the deterioration in financial markets and the increased uncertainty over future income -, and that their savings rate has still not dropped back down to the levels observed before the crisis, indicating that Dutch households remain cautious.

Debt and net worth

The households’ indebtedness ratio, i.e. the total outstanding debt of households as a percentage of their disposable income, may reflect (changes in) financial vulnerabilities of the household sector and provides a useful yardstick to assess their debt sustainability. In Q3 2016, household indebtedness was 255 % of disposable income, slightly above the minimum reached in Q1 2016 (254.7%), yet remaining one of the highest levels among OECD countries. One reason for the high debt levels in the Netherlands relates to generous tax incentives on mortgage loans which constitute the bulk of household debt. Debt levels had been declining for several years because households redeemed relatively large amounts and took up fewer new mortgages. In the more recent period however, the decrease of the debt ratio has ended, mainly due to the revival of the housing market and the low interest rates.

When assessing households’ economic vulnerabilities, one should also look at the availability of assets, preferably taking into account both financial assets (saving deposits, shares, etc.) and non-financial assets (for households, predominantly dwellings). Because information on households’ non-financial assets is generally not available on a quarterly basis, financial net worth (i.e. the excess of financial assets over liabilities) is used as an indicator of the financial vulnerability of households.

In Q3 2016, financial net worth of households was at its highest level, at 477.4% of disposable income (chart 7) – an increase of 7 percentage points from the previous quarter, and of 214.1 percentage points since 2010. These levels are amongst the highest among the OECD. The increase in Dutch households’ financial net worth in Q3 2016 mainly reflects the increase of pension entitlements (a large proportion of Dutch households’ wealth). Not counting assets related to pensions, the financial net worth of Dutch households was 15.5% of disposable income in the third quarter of 2016. All in all, the increase in assets significantly outpaced the declining trend in households’ debt (chart 6).

 

Unemployment

The unemployment rate and the labour underutilisation rate (chart 8) also provide indications of potential vulnerabilities of the household sector. More generally, unemployment has a major impact on people’s well-being. In Q3 2016 the unemployment rate dropped to 5.8% confirming a downward trend observed since Q1 2014 when it reached a maximum of 7.8% in the period observed. The labour underutilisation rate, which takes into account underemployed workers and discouraged job seekers, is on average a little more than two times the size of the unemployment rate, indicating unmet aspirations among Dutch workers to work more. It is interesting to note that part-time employment is a long-standing characteristic of the labour market in the Netherlands: it is the OECD country with the highest part-time employment rate – with more than 35% of employed people working part-time – and where the share of involuntary part-timers (wanting full-time work) is low. This indicates the Dutch people’s preference for part-time work arrangements, in particular Dutch women, and therefore does not affect much the labour underutilisation rate.

One should keep in mind that households’ income, consumption and savings may differ considerably across various groups of households; the same holds for households’ indebtedness and (financial) net worth. The OECD is working on these distributional aspects and preliminary results can be found here and here. In addition, the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics has information on income, consumption, and wealth broken down by household characteristics.

Like in many other countries, the economic crisis affected Dutch households who still haven’t recovered their pre-crisis income and consumption levels. Yet, overall, the third quarter of 2016 saw an increase of Dutch households’ material well-being, with expanding income and consumption per capita while their savings remain stable and unemployment continued to decrease.

However, to fully grasp people’s overall well-being, one should go beyond material conditions, and also look at a range of other dimensions of what shapes people’s lives, as is done in the OECD Better Life Initiative.

Useful links

For many years, OECD has been focusing on people’s well-being and societal progress. To learn more on OECD’s work on measuring well-being, visit the Better Life Initiative.

Interested in how households are doing in other OECD countries? Visit our household’s economic well-being dashboard.

Chinese demography: One child, many consequences

Photo courtesy of Jacques Bron

Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights blog is focusing on China this week

How many wedding dresses does it take to change the world economy? That’s right, lots. And how? High saving rates in certain countries, notably China, contributed to housing price bubbles and the global financial crisis. Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia Business School and Xiaobo Zhang of IFPRI have an intriguing explanation as to why China’s saving rate is so high (around 50% of GDP in 2007 just before the crisis started): blame it on the brides.

Or rather, blame it on “competitive saving”, one of the unintended consequences of the one-child policy, introduced in 1978 to slow population growth. The government claims that thanks to the policy, the population is three to four hundred million fewer than it would have been, but since families prefer boys, many of the missing millions are girls, including victims of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

The normal ratio of boys to girls is around 106:100, an evolutionary corrective for the fact that male babies are more likely to die. In China, however, the ratio is much higher. The exact figure is not known, but estimates range from 119:100 to over 130.

What is known though, is that there are now tens of millions more young men of marriageable age than women. So to improve their son’s chances, a family saves to be able to buy a nicer, better furnished house than rivals and give the young newly-weds a good start in life. According to Wei and Zhang, even families who don’t have a son to marry off have save as much, since prices are driven up. Families with sons save more than those with daughters, and savings rates are higher in regions with higher gender imbalances.

Another unintended consequence is the rapid ageing of the population. In 1975, just before the one-child policy started, there were six children for every person aged over 60. By 2035, there will be two over-60s for every child. Population ageing is happening all over the world, but it is happening much earlier in China’s economic development than in OECD countries.

As Richard Jackson and his colleagues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies point out, when the elderly share of the population was the same in the US as it is China today, per capita income was four times what China’s is at present. Some Chinese express the fear that the country will grow old before it grows rich.

China’s growth has depended on what some media like to call limitless supplies of cheap labour. But the working-age population will peak in 2015, and will shrink by almost a quarter by 2050, with an even sharper decline for people in their 20s and 30s. Total population will still grow, because people will live longer, and China will have an older population than the US in 2050.

Given that this elderly population will not be able to count on large numbers of children to support them, how will they live? The government’s goal is universal coverage for the basic pension system by 2020 and it has also taken a number of steps to encourage schemes to complement this.

Yet public pension coverage remains far from universal, and has large unfunded liabilities for early retirees from the state-owned sector. Moreover, benefits are not fully portable, so workers often have to choose between job mobility and retirement security, and the rate of return on personal pension plans is too low to replace a salary.

At the same time, the decline in the working-age population may allow employees to negotiate better pensions as part of their pay packages. Labour shortages have already been reported in some regions, partly because rural migrants who went home during the worst of the recession don’t want to come back. Last week, the Guangzhou Daily reported that the local authorities had raised the minimum wage from 860 yuan to 1030, a higher rate than Beijing even.

All this is leading to calls to abandon the one-child policy. Especially since China is now suffering from a phenomenon that has cursed every country that ever existed at every epoch in world history – kids today are not as nice as us. Or, as the People’s Daily complained last month: the one-child policy is breeding brats.

Useful links

China in the 2010s: Rebalancing growth and strengtheneing social safety nets

2010 年代的中国:经济增长再平衡和强化社会安全网 (Chinese version)

OECD work on China

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文)

China at the OECD Development Centre

Photos by Jacques Bron