Debunking The Great Myth Of US Consumer Deleveraging, Or Why The US Economy Will End Not With A Whimper But A Bang
By now everyone 'knows' that the US consumer is hunkering down, paying down debt and performing other mythological tasks. Alas, as the WSJ points out today, this is not exactly true... In fact not true one bit. The reality is that over the past two years, US consumers have not been deleveraging as a voluntary act of eliminating debt, but have been actually aggressively leveraging more and more until the bank providing them credit puts them into involuntary bankruptcy, cutting off the money spigot. This is a startling realization, confirming that the average American is actually hyperleveraging to the point where all available credit is forcefully eliminated by a lender institution!
Here are the facts: as the Flow of Funds report demonstrates, total household credit, consisting of Home Mortgages and Consumer Credit, has indeed declined by $610 billion from $13.2 trillion to $12.6 trillion since the credit bubble peak in June 2008. Yet, as Mark Whitehose points out, there are two ways in which this "deleveraging" can occur. Voluntarily, in the form of actual financial discipline, whereby the end consumer makes a conscious effort to pay down their debt, and Involuntarily, which is really not deleveraging, but aggressive leveraging to the hilt, up until the point where banks eliminate all credit access to the end consumer.
Luckily there is a way to quantify which road has been more travelled by. As the WSJ points out, in the period in which consumer credit has declined by $610 billion, banks and other institutions have charged off $588 billion in mortgage and consumer loans. (Our attempts at recreating these numbers using Fed H.8 and charge off data were slightly off, in fact demonstrating that based on charge off data as calculated, forced deleveraging will only accelerate as it catches up to bank charge off runrates). Nonetheless, a good way to visualize this phenomenon can be seen in the chart below:
Putting numbers to the data confirms that of the over $600 billion in deleveraging, only $20 billion or so of it was voluntary, with the balance occurring due to continuously irresponsible borrowing practices, in which US consumers spend, spend, spend themselves into oblivion only to be cut off cold turkey, instead of entering a slow deleveraging rehabilitation which would allow them to shift into the transition to a new creditless normal far easier.
The last observation is key as it has rather startling implications to David Rosenberg's theme of the New Frugal Normal. It would appear consumers do not, in fact, moderate their spending while still in possession of credit (regardless of its cost) - quite the contrary: they accelerate spending until the charge off threshold at the lender is breached, and all credit is cut off, also resulting in a collapse in a creditor's FICO score, cutting him or her off completely from future (at least near term) credit access. Thus what is occurring at the end of a typical consumer credit lifespan, is not a whimper but a massive bang. What happens after may require Stephen Hawking's explanation rather than David Rosenberg. The conclusion is that consumers do not pass a moderate "go" on their way to insolvency, they go from hyperleverage straight into bankruptcy.
What this means for consumption as observed on the supply-side, i.e., sales at stores like Nordtstroms and Barneys, is that instead of trendlines being indicative of what is truly happening behind the scenes, we have now entered a phase where sales will spike only to drop off in a quantized, step-wise fashion, rather than a linear drop off. This would make all the sense in the world, when one considers that side by side with the observed "deleveraging" of consumers, sales at aspirational store concepts are in fact surging, as the broke middle class performs one last "swan song" rampage of purchasing every Gucci and Chanel bag available, before saying goodbye to credit for a long, long time.
And with unemployment still at record highs, and soon to take another leg higher, paychecks continuing to decline, excess capacity at record highs, 99 week EUC and Extended Claims reaching their ceiling 2 year anniversary from the Lehman collapse, and the general economy double dipping, the implications of this will be dire, as there will be no gradual decline. Instead, to borrow another cosmological term, instead of the US economy decelerating at a rate proportional to the removal of credit from the system, it will grow and grow until it hits supergiant status, only to collapse into a neutron star (or worse) singularity, in which only the Fed will be left beyond the event horizon, only to suffer a similar fate in its last ditch failed attempt to stimulate hyperinflation and rescue the US consumer and banking classes from the infinite gravitational pull of a failed Keynesian experiment.