AMERICA THE DEBTOR © Leo Haviland March 17, 2014

In recent weeks, much marketplace and media attention has underlined growing United States household net worth as well as decreasing household indebtedness as a percentage of GDP. Pundits proclaim that federal budget deficits have substantially declined from the towering heights of only a couple of years ago. Hasn’t the American and worldwide economy generally improved since the dreadful times of late 2008/early 2009? Americans point to the stratospheric rise of the S+P 500 since its March 2009 major low around 667. And look at those great US corporate earnings of the past couple of years! All such talk surely encourages optimism regarding the American financial situation, as has the related sustained highly accommodative monetary policy rhetoric and action of the Federal Reserve Board and its central banking comrades around the globe. Yet although Fed policies such as gargantuan money printing, severe interest rate repression, and fancy wordplay regarding forward guidance have boosted morale and purchased time for action on America’s major debt problem, they have not bought a solution to that issue.

 

To better perceive and assess America’s debt challenge, sentinels should adopt a wider perspective, focusing on the overall United States debt situation over a long historical period. For over five decades, from the early 1950s up through the glorious Goldilocks Era that ended in 2007, and for a couple of years thereafter, total US indebtedness as a percentage of nominal GDP climbed steadily and substantially.

 

Remarkably little progress has been made in the comprehensive (all-inclusive) US debt situation since 2009’s very lofty percentage. Increasing federal indebtedness has substantially though not entirely outweighed improvements in the consumer and state and local government sectors. Since the national government is a representative (democratic; “We, the People”) one, the general US debt situation has not mended significantly. In addition, although the federal budget deficits will remain relatively small (at least compared to the mammoth gaps of a few years ago), they gradually expand after the next few years. The ongoing substantial US debt mountain consequently remains a long run burden on, and probably also a near term problem for, US and international economic growth.

 

This review of total American credit marketplace debt portrays the development of a national culture of debt. The long run trend probably indicates a growing bias toward consumption and spending rather than saving. The increasing borrowing and massive debt accumulation arguably in part also probably reflect an increasingly widespread sense of entitlement to American Dream goals of the “good life” and a “better life”.

FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW to download this market essay as a PDF file.

America the Debtor (3-17-14)