No restraint in household loans

There was a remarkable increase in the total outstanding debt of Greek households between 2002 and 2005, according to a market study commissioned by the Bank of Greece. According to the study, the Greek household has an average debt of 19,600 euros, as opposed to 15,500 euros in 2002. But the most worrying revelation of all is a sharp hike in the debt of low-income households. This shows that financially disadvantaged social groups are being increasingly obliged to resort to borrowing in order to make ends meet. This becomes even clearer when one considers the profile of the average borrower: the size of his loan now corresponds to 33.5 percent of his income, as compared to 22.8 percent of his income in 2002. The study also established that one in two low-income borrowers are not able to pay off their loan installments regularly and are struggling to fulfil their financial commitments. It is true that the Bank of Greece has expressed concern but it cannot remain passive as the situation could escalate into a major social problem if it is left unchecked. However, much European legislation may have limited the scope of the bank’s potential to intervene; it remains the duty of the central bank to protect consumers from misleading promotions for bank loans which gloss over the financial burden that a prospective customer would be taking on. There are a series of measures that should be implemented to avert the critical escalation of this problem: the public should be systematically briefed about developments in the sector; banks should be obliged to strictly observe existing provisions against bad debts; and European central banks should engage in regular consultations aimed at the adoption of common measures to avert excessive household borrowing. Helping households secure loans is one thing; encouraging the creation of groups of citizens who believe they can get whatever they want «on credit» is quite another.