Beneath the Headlines: U.S. Household Debt
May 19, 2017
Wednesday saw the worst drubbing of stocks in 2017. The good news is that it was mostly a warning shot aimed at Washington, D.C. and not an indictment of the rally or our economy. Everyone felt the heat, but if you’re wondering whether the wheels are coming off, the short answer is “no.”
Whenever the market rips higher or plunges, the important thing to keep in mind is that there are other stories out there beyond the headlines. Wednesday it was the bank sell-off, particularly in large money center banks that dragged their smaller counterparts along for the ride.
Then there are the headlines that U.S. household debt has eclipsed the peak that precipitated the Great Recession. In fact, I see some positives that I want to talk about today.
As I mentioned, headlines can be misleading – and often deliberately misleading – to push certain narratives. But there’s also simply lazy reporting. This is the case here. While the total debt has reached $12.73 trillion, its composition and threat to the economy has changed. Housing debt is significantly less as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) than it was on the cusp of the meltdown, and there are a lot fewer exotic bets and less exogenous risk to the financial systems.
When the recession began, U.S. household debt was nearing 100% of GDP. Currently, the total household debt is hovering around 80% of GDP.
However, it’s true that the surge in student debt and auto loans present their own levels of potential risk to taxpayers. Nonetheless, it’s extraordinarily less than the sliced and diced and bundled loans and bonds that were a ticking time bomb back in the day.
The story of debt in America has been mostly a story of student loan debt, which ballooned during the Obama administration after the middle man was kicked out of the process and the federal government rubber stamped most applications. Consequently, taxpayers are on the hook for more than $900 billion of the $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loans.
The current median monthly payment is $203, and yet the seriously delinquent student loan rate has climbed to 11%. The good news is that wages are beginning to move and millennials are moving up in the workplace.
A closer look at the recent trajectory of U.S. household debt hints at increased consumer confidence. That confidence reflects the improved personal economic conditions. With that in mind, though, there are limits on where we want to see debt levels.
Conclusion: Headlines that equate today’s level of debt are misleading folks and fanning the flames of fear and anxiety. This is a new day with new circumstances, which overall are a big-time net positive. That makes this week’s pullback on the news out of Washington a buying opportunity. In weeks like this, I think of all those investors who have missed the rally going back to the bottom of March 2009 and keep vowing to buy the next dip. They probably didn’t buy this one either, missing yet another opportunity to make some money.