Impact of the COVID-19 crisis on household incomes and savings: results after one year in the light of the consumer survey
Since April 2020, the monthly consumer survey has contained two additional questions to monitor the impact of the health crisis on the financial situation of households. Every month, this survey polls a representative sample of 1 850 consumers.
This article analyses the results over a one-year period and places them in perspective.
COVID-19 represents an exceptional crisis which has clearly affected the consumer confidence indicator. In March-April 2020, that indicator fell even faster and more sharply than at the outbreak of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Its subsequent recovery was more uneven (influenced by the health measures, data on infection rates, the advent of vaccines, etc.) but in the end it seems that confidence recovered at a very similar rate during the two crises.
The first specific question on the impact of the crisis concerns households’ loss of income. Although certain categories of people, especially the self-employed, have been hard hit by the crisis, around eight in ten households have suffered no loss of income or no more than 10%. One of the explanations for this situation is that some sections of the population – pensioners and benefit claimants – receive a guaranteed income. Among the working population, the perception of income loss has diminished somewhat as the crisis unfolded. Over time, some businesses and self-employed workers have managed to adapt in order to restart some or all of their activities as far as possible, while adhering to the health rules. The phases in which the lockdown was lifted also limited the losses, while the compensatory measures introduced by the government have, up to now, helped to lessen part of the shock in a structural way.
It is also clear that households on modest incomes have suffered more, even if their loss of income was only small.
The loss of income is that much easier to bear if the household has substantial savings which can be used to cushion the shock. The second additional question introduced in the survey concerns the size of the savings buffer available to the household.
The survey reveals that more than one in two households have a savings buffer sufficient to cover more than six months of current expenditure. Conversely, one household in ten has minimal savings, barely enough to cover one month. In the event of loss of income, this category of households is particularly vulnerable and could very quickly get into difficulties. That risk of hardship, linked to meagre financial reserves, is most acute for persons not economically active (except for pensioners).
Among the population losing more than 10% of their income, the savings buffer is being used up, especially in the case of households whose savings are already limited.
In conclusion, the survey results show that some sections of the population have very largely escaped the detrimental financial impact of the crisis. Some socio-occupational categories have been harder hit, but overall the situation has not worsened over time, particularly thanks to the compensatory aid and the adaptability demonstrated by businesses and self-employed workers. Conversely, some hardship risks are increasing: the savings buffer of those incurring a loss of income while having only fairly modest savings is tending to be used up.
 The National Bank publishes the results of the consumer survey on its NBB.Stat website, including those relating to the two special “COVID-19” questions. The monthly press releases on consumer confidence have already contained specific comments on those points.
 Savings buffer, expressed as a number of months, to cover the necessary expenditure (rent, shopping, etc.) and to ensure household subsistence.