First results of the third wave of Belgium’s household finance and consumption survey
How many Belgian households own their main residence? How many of them have other types of property or financial investment? Which of them are more indebted? The Household Finance and Consumption Survey (HFCS) provides answers to these and many other questions about the financial situation of Belgian households.
The HFCS is a European-wide exercise, coordinated by the ECB and the national central banks of participating countries. The third wave of the Belgian HFCS took place in 2017. This article presents its initial findings, focusing on changes since 2010 and 2014, when the first and second waves were held.
In Belgium, over 2 300 households replied to the questionnaire in the latest wave of the survey, providing data on their income, savings, debt and wealth, as well as on their education, housing and employment status, among other things. This invaluable cooperation from Belgian households makes it possible to go beyond aggregate national data in the economic analyses, enabling differentiation between them along a number of characteristics and to relate these to one another: for instance, the relationship between age and wealth or between income and debt levels can be observed.
According to the latest wave of the HFCS, around 70 % of Belgian households owned their main residence in 2017, and 19 % had other real estate (ranging from a garage, to a commercial space or a second residence). However, while 96 % of the richest 20 % owned their main residence, only 3 % of the poorest 20 % households did. The real estate owned by Belgian households increased in value between 2014 and 2017. Despite the economic recovery and the fall in interest rates over that period, the survey showed that most Belgians stayed away from riskier, more sophisticated financial assets (shares and bonds are held by a small – usually wealthy – minority, while one-fifth of households has invested in mutual funds), preferring deposits and voluntary pension plans or life insurance contracts.
But lower interest rates, together with other favourable borrowing conditions, may have led Belgian households to take on more debt between 2014 and 2017, in particular mortgage loans, which increased by 22 %. Households borrowed more relative to the value of their assets and their income, which could make them more vulnerable to a negative shock to their finances. While the aggregate values were not excessive over this period, high indebtedness might become a concern for some households: the survey shows a growing share of cases where debt is very high compared to the household’s gross annual income (over 300 %) or their total assets (over 75 %). While remaining at moderate levels on aggregate, debt servicing exceeded 30 % of the household’s gross income for 7 % of single-parent households and for a growing share of those where the family’s head is self-employed. However, it fell for those households with lower earnings. This might be explained by the fact that, in general, lower-income households have less access to credit, which may protect them against an excessive debt burden.
The rise in debt levels, also relative to total assets, implies that the net wealth of households went down between 2014 and 2017. This decline was bigger for younger households and for the poorest ones. Income, however, rose more for households at the bottom of the income and wealth distribution than for the median household.
Overall, the information made available by the HFCS is also useful to identify potential vulnerabilities among households, especially in the face of a shock to their income or the value of their assets, while taking into account their debt levels, too. This appears to make the HFCS survey particularly relevant considering the potential effects of the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, notably when formulating appropriate policy responses.
The next two waves of the survey are scheduled to take place in 2020 and 2023.
For more information, see: