America continues to have a love affair with debt. The nation has achieved remarkably little progress in improving its comprehensive (all-inclusive) debt situation since 2009’s very elevated debt relative to nominal GDP percentage. Increasing federal indebtedness has substantially though not entirely outweighed modest improvements in the consumer and state and local government domains. As the national government is a representative (democratic; “We, the People”) one, the country has not significantly mended its troubling overall debt problem.
A review of total American credit marketplace debt portrays the development and entrenchment of a national culture of debt. The long run trend toward greater debt holdings (and tolerance of debt) probably indicates and intertwines with 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”.
Total United States credit marketplace debt at end 2014 stood at about $58.7 trillion (Federal Reserve Board, “Financial Accounts of the United States”, Z.1 data; 3/12/15). The total includes US household, financial and non-financial business, and government debt, plus the relatively small foreign/rest of the world category. Compare 2001’s $29.2tr. Thus America’s credit marketplace debt has doubled in roughly a dozen years, and there has been no yearly fall in the sum since 2001.
What does a long run examination of total United States credit marketplace debt as a percent of nominal GDP reveal? Review the post-World War Two landscape. 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.
The bottom in overall US credit marketplace debt as a percent of GDP was 1951’s 129.5 percent. It inexorably edged up for about thirty years. It then started to accelerate from 1981’s 164.1pc. In 1985, it reached 200.3pc, with 1998’s 257.4pc, and 2001’s 275.1pc. In 2003, that measure attained 298.2pc. As debt became increasingly popular, it joyously soared during the blissful Goldilocks period to 346.1pc in 2007. As the gloomy American (and global) financial crisis emerged and proceeded, total US credit marketplace debt peaked at 362.0pc in 2009.
Despite pillow talk from many pundits about improving American debt conditions, that gigantic percentage has fallen only modestly since 2009. It slipped to 349.7pc of nominal GDP in 2010, and 340.6pc in 2012. However, it has diminished very little since then, with 2013 at 338.0pc and 2014 at 337.1pc. Significantly, 2014’s percentage remains not far from the heavenly Goldilocks Era 346.1pc height of 2007.
Another statistic further underscores the growth and persistence of America’s debt culture. Not only is the current credit marketplace debt as a percent of GDP level still historically high and close to the Goldilocks plateau. The arithmetic drop of 24.9 percentage points from the five years 2009 to 2014 (362.0pc less 337.1pc) is only about half the 47.9 point increase over the four years from 2003-07 (298.2 versus 346.1).
The Federal Reserve’s long-running extraordinary and very easy monetary policy (notably money printing/quantitative easing and interest rate yield repression) seek not only to ignite and sustain economic recovery and buy time for serious action in the federal and other debt realms. The Fed has battled to boost inflation to a supposedly sufficient level, while it has simultaneously repressed debt securities yields. Its artful strategies reflect the central bank’s ardent devotion on behalf of the constituency of debtors (borrowers) relative to the one of savers (creditors).
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America's Debt Culture (4-6-15)