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Household Debt in New Zealand

Publication Details

  • Household Debt in New Zealand
  • Published: 24 Dec 2009
  • Status: Current
  • Authors: Scobie, Grant M; Henderson, Katherine
  • JEL Classification: D31
  • Hard copy: Available in Adobe PDF format only. HTML available on request from

Household Debt in New Zealand

Published 24 Dec 2009

Authors: Katherine Henderson and Grant M. Scobie


In recent years, the total debt of the household sector has risen appreciably. This has led to concerns about “excessive” borrowing, and to the possibility that some households may have become unduly vulnerable in the event of unexpected shocks. This paper draws on both aggregate and household level data to assess the extent and composition of household debt; to analyse the distribution of debt in relation to income; to examine the factors associated with high ratios of debt servicing relative to income and consider the extent to which individuals and households are vulnerable to unexpected shocks.

Between 1982 and 2007, household debt grew from 33% to 149% of household disposable incomes. However due to the faster growth of assets, net wealth grew from 319% of disposable income in 1982 to 430% by 2002 and 604% by 2007; ie, even before the sharp rise in house prices, the overall balance sheet of households was stronger in 2002 than any time in the previous two decades, despite the increase in debt levels.

Mortgages represented about 85% of total liabilities, the balance made up of credit card debt and student loans. Higher absolute debt levels amongst couples were associated with home ownership and higher levels of assets and income. Maori and Pacific Island couples recorded liabilities some $6,500 greater than European couples.

The paper defines those as vulnerable as having debt servicing obligations exceeding 30 percent of their gross income. It is estimated that in 6.2% of non-partnered individuals and 8.1% of couples fell into this category in 2004. When the underlying levels of income, asset values and mortgage interest rates were adjusted to correspond to values in 2008, it is estimated that these proportions doubled.

Those at risk were defined as having debt servicing obligations exceeding 30 percent of their gross income and, at the same time, recording negative net wealth. In part, negative net wealth arises because of lack of any assets that match the liability of student loans. Some 1.9% of individuals were deemed at risk, falling to 1.5% when student loans were excluded.

Student loans distort the net wealth estimates of those holding them as only the liability with no corresponding asset is recorded. When this is allowed for, the share of non-partnered individuals at risk drops further.

The unit record data ended in 2004. However the paper makes projections to 2008. For non-partnered individuals; there was little or no change in our estimate of the proportion with negative net wealth who also had debt servicing costs exceeding 30% of their income (ie, at risk). However for couples our estimate of the proportion at risk rose from 0.8% to 1.1%, corresponding to an increase from about 6,000 to 8,000 families.

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1 Introduction

2 Existing studies

3 Debt in the aggregate balance sheet of households

4 Household debt from the Survey of Family, Income and Employment

5 To what extent are families over-indebted?

6 Conclusions



twp09-03.pdf (425 KB) pp. i-iii,1–39



The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Working Paper are strictly those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the New Zealand Treasury or the New Zealand Government. The New Zealand Treasury and the New Zealand Government take no responsibility for any errors or omissions in, or for the correctness of, the information contained in these working papers. The paper is presented not as policy, but with a view to inform and stimulate wider debate.

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