Is The New US Consumer Consumption Binge Primed To Pop?

Reggie Middleton's picture

The Wall Street Journal recently ran the following: College Debt Hits Well-Off: Upper-Middle-Income Households See Biggest Jumps in Student Loan Burden. Having a college age child myself, I can certainly identify. From my perspective, there is absolutely no way in the world a cogent mind can deny that there is an education price bubble in the US. I most certainly find the "This couldn't be seen coming crowd" to be anathema - to wit, the MSM and even Wikipedia (whaaatttt????) have featured the problem:

What makes this topic so interesting is that it brings to mind the work that we've been doing in the consumer discretionary/durables sector shorts - reference "BS At The BLS Leads To Profitable Short Opportunities As Hopium Smokers Get High Off Of Depreciated Dime Bags Of Manipulated Euphoria!" for a strong supportive fundamental/macro argument and some sample short candidates. Long story, short - I believe the consumer and retail sector is due for a pretty significant correction. My team and I have gathered a material amount of evidence supporting said assumption, and the evidence keeps mounting. The Economonitor ran a most interesting piece that puts a different perspective on this, which I excerpt as follows (the emphasis is mine):

... We look at aggregate consumer credit (and not merely the revolving portion more commonly associated with retail activity) because we believe that term loan borrowing—where available (chiefly student loans and autos)—frees up cash for other consumption.  Another way of viewing this is that transportation and education are not truly elective purchases and not leveraging those purchases would otherwise reduce overall consumption.

What the numbers tell us today (as illustrated in the below graph) is that, as of January 2012, the growth rate in all forms of consumer credit on a 3 month average basis grew at a rate greater than at any time during the credit bubble.  Moreover, at $2.495 trillion, outstanding consumer credit stands a 97% of its peak of $2.576 trillion in August of 2008.  Deleveraging, my friends, this is not.

Yesterday the Consumer Financial Protection Board reported that student loans alone likely moved past the $1 trillion milepost at year end.  

Aren't the post recession eras supposed to be engines of growth? Is it different this time? Of course not, silly rabbits. Tricks are for kids. It's not different this time because we NEVER LEFT THE RECESSION OF 2008! The Fed's liquidity spigot combined with regulator's legalizing outright fraud simply hid the fact that we have been in a great recession ever since. I have discussed this in detail in the post "The Circle of Life -Purposely Disrupted By Multiple Central Banks Worldwide!!!"

Additional tidbits from that most excellent Economonitor article...

    • Are we once again entering a zone similar to the period immediately prior to the Great Recession in which consumer borrowing also grew rapidly, and more and more of the new borrowing was applied to debt service instead of new consumption? Watching retail sales trends over coming months should be instructive in this regard.
    • The crash in the housing market has left us with $873 billion in Home Equity Line of Credit balances (at Q4 2011) owed by consumers, most of which is no longer collateralized by home value. While borrowers may be making payments (many at vastly reduced rates of interest given the floating rate nature of those loans), I would put forward the argument that as a practical matterunsecured consumer debt in the U.S. is actually well over $3 trillion.
    • We are programmed by past cyclical phenomena to look at consumer credit expansion after a recession as being a positive – heralding the arrival of the “confidence fairy” who the more supply-focused in the macroeconomic establishment view as the critical element to a recovery.  There is no doubt that there is an element of this in the expansion illustrated below but, like so many things about the present secular crisis, that is surely not the driving force when a substantial portion of the increased indebtedness is applied to making ends meet, rather than triggered by optimism about the future.

So, what's next? Well,  my next post will illustrate my findings on a company closely tied to consumer credit. Then I will drill down farther into the consumer discretionary/durables sector for casual readers and paid subscribers (privileged content, of course) alike. New subscription research is available for download in the consumer discretionary sector - Preliminary analysis and short candidate (Consumer Discretionary).

For those that do not follow me, I have been pretty spot on in regards to bubble identification... SeeWho Is Reggie Middleton for my track record

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