Household Finance and Consumption Survey – 2017 wave – Frequently Asked Questions

Who conducts the survey?

A group of survey specialists, statisticians and economists from the ECB, the national central banks of the Eurosystem and of some EU countries that have not yet adopted the euro, and a number of national statistical institutes come together in the Household Finance and Consumption Network (HFCN) and conduct the survey.

Who was interviewed?

The survey covers 91,000 households from 19 euro area countries as well as Croatia, Hungary and Poland.

When?

Most of the fieldwork took place in 2017, which is the reference year for the balance sheet items in most of the countries.

When will the next survey be published?

The report for the next wave in 2020 is expected to be released in the last quarter of 2022.

Why are central banks interested in household finance data?

The ECB’s key goal is to deliver price stability. To that end, it uses policy tools such as setting interest rates at a certain level and unconventional measures like asset purchases. Changes in interest rates may well have different effects on different groups of households (as is the case for savers and borrowers, or renters and home owners), and these groups may respond to such changes in different ways. To that extent, the transmission of monetary policy does depend on the financial situation of individual households. It is thus important for central banks to have an insight into the distribution of wealth and its components in order to assess how their monetary policy is transmitted. However, wealth distribution is not an issue that can be addressed using monetary policy tools.

The Household Finance and Consumption Survey offers such data and therefore contributes to a better understanding of the transmission mechanism of monetary policy and allows the impact of shocks on financial stability to be analysed.

More concretely, this structural information from the survey makes it possible to study the concentration of debt and assets across certain sub-groups of households, such as younger, low-income or credit-constrained households. This information can also be used to analyse how household saving and expenditure react, for example, to changes in key monetary policy interest rates, or to fluctuations in house prices.

Other central banks conduct similar surveys for the same reasons. For example, the US Federal Reserve has been conducting the Survey of Consumer Finances every three years since the 1980s to provide detailed information on the finances of US households.

How are households defined in this survey? Who was asked?

The survey covers private households that reside in the respective national territories, irrespective of the citizenship of their members, at the time the data are collected. Persons living in collective households and in institutions are excluded from the target population.

“Household” is defined as a person living alone or a group of people who live together in the same private dwelling and share expenditures, including the joint provision of living essentials.

What assets and liabilities are covered in this survey?

In terms of assets, the survey covers assets and liabilities held or incurred by the surveyed households, including assets and liabilities abroad.

The wealth figures provided by the survey also include the current value of households’ private pension plans and life-insurance policies, but do not include the value of public and occupational pension schemes. This is due to the difficulty of reliably measuring such assets in the case of unfunded pension schemes. In addition, in aggregate statistics (namely in the national accounts) the value of public pensions is not part of the core accounts of the general government and the household sector, but is rather recorded in satellite accounts.

Access to public services (education, medical services, etc.) by households is not part of the standard measures of household wealth and is thus not covered by the survey.

What does “net wealth” mean?

“Net wealth” is defined as the difference between households’ total assets and their total liabilities, so it may also be zero or a negative figure.

How do respondents calculate the value of their assets?

The survey collects self-assessed values provided by households, for which they are encouraged, wherever possible, to use supporting documentation (e.g. account statements provided by their banks, tax returns, etc.). This is a deliberate choice, given the goal of using the survey to study the behaviour of individual households. To this end, it is important to understand how households themselves assess the value of their assets and liabilities, as such self-perceptions typically drive economic decisions taken by households.

How were the households selected in the survey? Is the sample representative?

In each country, household samples were designed to ensure representative results for both the euro area and the specific country involved. More than 91,000 households were surveyed in the 2017 wave, with varying sample sizes across countries.

How do you ensure confidentiality?

The confidentiality of the household information is of utmost importance. The data are fully anonymised using state-of-the-art anonymisation techniques, and access to the household level data is provided only for justified scientific research purposes.

Can the survey provide some kind of approximation for the wealth of a country?

No. The survey was designed to allow the behaviour of individual private households to be studied. It was never intended to provide a substitute for the measurement of aggregate wealth available in macro statistics (e.g. the national accounts), and certainly not at the country level. The wealth of a country cannot and should not be assessed by measuring wealth of a single sector in isolation.

Are the results comparable with the national accounts?

The results of the survey have been thoroughly validated and the developments in household wealth are fairly consistent with information from other sources, including the national accounts. Nonetheless, the survey focuses on the provision of distributional information – its results are not, therefore, a substitute for the national accounts, which focus on the provision of aggregates for wealth, assets and liabilities. The concept of net worth and the definition of the household sector in national accounts are different than the concept of net wealth and the definition of private household in the HFCS. Consequently, the figures on household wealth from the survey are not fully comparable with the figures from national accounts.

Are the results comparable across survey waves?

A continuous effort is made in all countries to improve coverage, reduce non-response, minimise response bias and improve sampling, imputation and other methodologies of the survey. This implies that the surveys in all countries undergo changes in terms of coverage and methodology over time. Changes in results between survey waves, therefore, have to be viewed with some caution as they may to some extent reflect improvements in the survey.

Detailed metadata covering various aspects of data collection are collected from all NCBs and NSIs participating in the HFCS. Information on known comparability issues across waves in individual countries is available in Chapter 9.1 of the HFCS Methodological report for the 2017 wave.

Are the results comparable across countries? If so, which factors explain such significant differences in net wealth across countries?

Household net wealth varies substantially across euro area countries, with the median ranging from €21,000 to €499,000 and the mean from €43,000 to €898,000. A great deal of work has gone into making figures comparable across the euro area. Nevertheless, cross-country differences should be interpreted with great caution. Both institutional and methodological issues have an impact on the indicators across countries.

Household characteristics and institutional factors vary across countries. For example, in this survey, wealth is measured at the household level but the average size of a household differs from country to country. Since higher levels of household wealth are generally observed for larger households, differences in the demographic structure should be taken into account when comparing indicators on household assets. The same holds true for rates of home and land ownership, and for households’ preferences with respect to holding real or financial assets. Homeownership rates, in particular, have a strong impact on wealth differences across countries.

More detailed information on comparability issues across countries is available in Chapter 9.2 of the HFCS Methodological report for the 2017 wave.