This Tuesday, I’ll be at Joseph Stiglitz’s event at Columbia University on finance and inequality, presenting my work with Arjun Jayadev on household debt. You can find the latest version of our paper here.
In preparation, I’ve been updating the numbers and the results are interesting. As folks at the Fed have noted, the post-2007 period of household deleveraging seems to have reached its end. Here’s what the household debt picture looks like, in the accounting framework that Arjun and I prefer.
The units are percent of adjusted household income. (We can ignore the adjustments here.) The heavy black line shows the year-over-year change in household debt-income ratios. The bars then disaggregate that change into new borrowing by households — the primary deficit — and the respective contributions of interest payments, inflation, income growth, and defaults. A negative bar indicates a factor that reduces leverage; in most years, this includes both (real) income and inflation, since by raising the denominator they reduce the debt-income ratio. A positive bar indicates a factor that increases leverage; this includes interest payments (which are always positive), and the primary deficit in years in which households are on net receiving funds from credit markets.
Here’s what we are seeing:
In 2006 and 2007, debt-income ratios rose by about 3 percent each year; this is well below the six-point annual increases earlier in the 2000s, but still substantial. In 2008, the first year of the recession, the household debt-income ratio rises by another 3 points, despite the fact that households are now paying down debt, with repayments exceeding new borrowing by nearly 8 percent of household income. This is an astonishing rate of net repayment, the greatest since at least 1931. But despite this desperate effort to deleveraging, household debt-income ratios actually rose in 2008, thanks to the sharp fall in income and to near-zero inflation — in most years, the rise in prices automatically erodes the debt-income ratio. The combination of negative net borrowing and a rising debt burden is eerily reminiscent of the early Depression — it’s a clear sign of how, absent Big Government, the US at the start of the last recession was on track for a reprise of the Depression.
Interest payments make a stable positive contribution to the debt-incoem ratio throughout this period. Debt-service payments do fall somewhat, from around 7 percent of household income in 2006 to around 5 percent in 2013. But compared with other variables important to debt dynamics, debt-service payments are quite stable in the short-term. (Over longer periods, changes in effective interest rates are a ] bigger deal.) It’s worth noting in particular that the dramatic reduction in the federal funds rate in 2007-2008 had a negligible effect on the average interest rate paid by households.
In 2009-2012, the household debt-income ratio does fall, by around 5 points per year. But note that household surpluses (i.e. negative deficits) are no larger in these years than in 2008; the difference is that we see resumed positive growth of inflation and, a bit later, real incomes, raising the denominator of the debt-income ratio. This is what failed to happen in the 1930s. Equally important, there is a sharp rise in the share of debt written off by default, exceeding 3 percent in each year, compared with a writeoff rate below one percent in all pre-recession years. Note that the checked bar and the white bar are of similar magnitudes: In other words, repayment and default contributed about equally to the reduction of household debt. If deleveraging was an important requirement for renewed economic growth then it’s a good thing that it’s still possible to discharge our debts through bankruptcy. Otherwise, there would have been essentially no reduction in debt-income ratios between 2007 and 2012. [*]
This much is in the paper. But in 2013 the story changes a bit. The household debt-income ratio rises again, for the first time since 2008. And the household balance movers into deficit, for the first time since 2007 — for the first time in six years, households are receiving more funds from the credit markets than they are paying back to them. These events are linked. While the central point of our paper is that changes in leverage cannot be reduced to changes in borrowing, for the US households in 2013, it is in fact increased borrowing that drove the rise in debt-income ratios. Inflation and income growth were basically constant between 2012 and 2013. The 5-point acceleration in the growth of the household debt-income ratio is explained by a 4.5 point rise in new borrowing by households (plus a 1.5 point fall in defaults, offset by a 1-point acceleration in real income growth).
So what do we make of this? Well, first, boringly perhaps but importantly, it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes the familiar story is the correct story. If households owe more today than a year ago, it’s because they borrowed more over the past year. It’s profoundly misleading to suppose this is always the case. But in this case it is the case. Secondly, I think this vindicates the conclusion of our paper, that sustained deleveraging is impossible in the absence of substantially higher inflation, higher defaults, or lower interest rates. These are not likely to be seen without deliberate, imaginative policy to increase inflation, directly reduce the interest rates facing households, and/or write off much more of household debt than will happen through the existing bankruptcy process. Otherwise, in today’s low-inflation environment, as soon as the acute crisis period ends leverage is likely to resume its rise. Which seems to be what we are seeing.
[*] More precisely: By our calculations, defaults reduced the aggregate household debt-income ratio by 20 points over 2008-2012, out of a total reduction of 21.5 points.