Consumer Debt

Discussion in 'Economics' started by ShoeshineBoy, Jan 5, 2004.

  1. Can we ever have a true rally with this level of consumer debt? Greenspan says it's okay. Should we believe him?

    Consumer debt hit a record $1.98 trillion in October 2003, according to the most recent figures from the Federal Reserve. That debt -- which includes credit cards and car loans, but not mortgages -- translates to some $18,700 per U.S. household.

    At the same time, the government says the nation's savings rate dropped to just 2 percent of after-tax income in the first half of the year. That means many people lack the means to deal with financial emergencies, much less their eventual retirement.

    Experts worry about the impact not only on individual families but on society as a whole.

    "The Depression generation is passing on, and we're losing their values," said Howard Dvorkin, president of the nonprofit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Now we've got an entire generation that doesn't know anything about thrift and careful spending. It's tearing the fabric that made this country great."

    Just how did American consumers get so deeply in debt?

    Robert D. Manning, a sociology professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who wrote "Credit Card Nation -- The Consequences of America's Addition to Credit," says the problem dates back to the 1980s, when financial institutions began issuing credit cards and making loans to people who wouldn't have qualified in the past.

    "At the same time, people had this sense of entitlement based on the idea that this generation was expected to outperform the earlier generation," Manning said. "It was OK to buy yourself a better standard of living than your parents, and the banks would help you do it."

    The nation's credit card debt currently stands at $735 billion, or nearly $7,000 per household. And since about 40 percent of card users pay their balances in full each month, the per capita card debt of those who carry balances is closer to $12,000.

    Americans have become champion shoppers, says Joel Greenberg, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Novadebt credit counseling service in Freehold, New Jersey.

    "Through the go-go '90s, the irrational exuberance wasn't just in the stock markets," Greenberg said. "It was throughout society. We became phenomenal consumers -- and deplorable savers."

    Shopping is what Kristeen Mahler, a secretary from East Meadow, N.Y., turned to for solace after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Mahler's office was just 100 yards from the World Trade Center.

    "I shopped to try to forget it," she said.

    She bought clothes for herself, gifts for friends -- and kept the mounting bills a secret even from her husband.

    Mahler said she finally started talking about the attack and found support from family and friends in dealing with her anxiety. She also sought credit counseling and is one year into a four-year plan to pay off her debts.

    What's surprising about the nation's debt is that it has continued to rise despite record numbers of mortgage refinancing from 2001 to 2003, many of them yielding cash that consumers have used to pay down credit card balances.

    Mark Zandi, chief economist at, points out that the rate of growth of card debt has slowed "because people are using their homes as cash machines."

    But while refinancings have allowed upper income households to put their balance sheets in order, lower income families without that option are finding it harder to cope, he said.

    "They're the folks filing for bankruptcy in record numbers, they're the ones facing repossession and foreclosures," Zandi said.

    Consumer bankruptcies have exceeded 1 million a year since 1996, hitting a record of 1.54 million in 2002. Bankruptcy filings totaled 1.25 million during the first nine months of 2003 and could set a new record when full-year tabulations are done by the Washington-based American Bankruptcy Institute.

    There's debate about how the high debt levels and demanding repayment schedules will affect the economy.

    Americans currently spend a near-record 18.1 percent of their after-tax income to cover debts, including mortgages. That limits their ability to borrow more to spend more, and consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the economy.

    Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has pointed out that because of low interest rates, consumers can more easily handle their debt so the level is "not a significant cause for concern."

    Economist Sung Won Sohn of Wells Fargo & Co. agrees that for now, most Americans are OK and should continue to be the driving force in the nation's economic growth.

    Still, he said, the level of debt does raise concerns.

    "In the long run, it's a ticking time bomb," Sohn said. "At some point when you get a sharp setback in the economy or a spike in interest rates, the high debt causes instability."
  2. although it sounds bad these kinds of things cant be gamed in the market very easy because they never matter until some event makes them matter and it could be a long time before it happens.
  3. Wasn't looking to play anything on this. This was just for the "general outlook" category. Sales this holiday were lackluster and I'm just wondering if this one of the background reasons.

    If that's so, then this will be a problem for years to come cuzz int. rates can't go down any further. I'm just wondering if this is now part of theory as to what is stagnating the economy (along with unemployment, fuel prices and inflation due to falling dollar)?

    For a recovery, this seems very mild and very slow...
  4. that's the bottom line. It's like saying that valuations matter for internet stocks. It didn't matter until it mattered. But you had a couple of good years on the long side before they cratered. And heck, many of them are back from the dead!

  5. "For a recovery, this seems very mild and very slow..."

    the reason the recovery doesn't seem that strong is because it wasn't much of a recession. one of the mildest ever. the first recession where housing and auto sales never got hit. the unemployment rate barely got over 6%. that was considered full employment not too many years ago.
  6. You know I never really thought of how big of a disconnect there was between business and consumer. On the consumer side it was mild cuzz house and mortgages kept everything fairly reasonable for Everyman.

    But am I wrong? Non-auto and non-home businesses seemed hit pretty hard: capital dried up almost completely, earnings were definitely down, business purchasing decreased a lot, sales were anemic, etc.

    Was the business dry up mostly a result of loss of capital?
  7. maxpi


    I think maybe the higher end households, that do the majority of consumer spending, re- fi'd their houses and paid off the cards and will continue buying like they are used to.