America's Poor Have Never Been Deeper In Debt

Ever since the Lehman bankruptcy, one of the main reasons given by the perpetual apologists about why i) the so-called "recovery" has been the worst in US history and ii) the Fed has been "forced" to conduct 6 years of wealth transferring policies, boosting the stock market to all time highs and creating a record wealth split in US society between the super rich and everyone else (one that surpasses even that seen during the roaring 20s) is that the US consumer, scarred by the economic crash, has been rushing to deleverage and dump as much debt as possible.

There are two problems with that story:

  • First, as we first pointed out in 2012, US households are not deleveraging, they are defaulting, a huge difference which goes to motive and intent, and shows that instead of actively paying down debt households are instead loading up on as much debt as they can, which at some point they simply stop servicing (for a detailed analysis of this disturbing trend, read our series on the student loan bubble).
  • Second, when it comes to the poorest quartile of US society, some 14 million people, it is dead wrong. In fact, as the Fed's triennial Survey of Consumer Finances, released last week showed, America's poorest have never been more in debt!

As usual, the full story is one of nuances. As Bloomberg reports, as a result of the first point - mass defaults - US household debt has indeed declined on an average basis. Indeed, average debt burden for all families stood at about 105% of pretax income in 2013, down from about 125% in 2010 and the lowest level since the 2001 survey.

Of course, since economists are unable to grasp the difference between default and deleveraging, one look at the chart above gives them reason for hope. As Bloomberg summarizes:

The improved finances, along with more recent signs that consumers are feeling comfortable about borrowing again, has given some economists cause for optimism: The more progress households make in getting out from under their debts, the logic goes, the greater the chances that renewed spending will boost growth.

In reality, the "improved finances", namely those tens of trillions in financial assets that have been artificially reflated courtesy of the Fed's monetary policies, have benefited the tiniest sliver of US society - about 1% or less depending on whose calculations one uses. Everyone else, the bulk of US society, was forced to simply stop paying down their credit card and thus "delever."

But for a good perspective of what the part of society that is at the opposite end of the 1%, namely those 14 million or so Americans who comprise the poorest quartile of households, look no further than the chart below, which shows just what Americans are really doing up until that point where default does equal "deleveraging", even if it means loss of access to all credit for a period of several years:

 

 

 

From Bloomberg: "The poorest quartile of families is the only group that owes more than it owns. Thanks to declines in the value of assets, the group's average leverage ratio -- debt as a percent of assets -- increased to 137.5 percent in 2013, the highest on record since the survey started in 1989."

And there you have it - not only is America not actively delveraging, on the contrary, it is loading up on as much debt as it possibly can (or banks will allow it judging by the decline in mortgage-type debt, driven mostly by supply constraints and qualification factors) until the band snaps and in a perverse circle of illogic, releveraging becomes default becomes deleveraging.

Bloomberg has some ideas here, including commenting on the one observations we have been making since 2011: the relentless rise in installment debt, i.e., student and car loans:

There are various possible explanations for the poorest families' financial predicament. Incomes have declined, making debt burdens look worse. Some previously wealthier people probably migrated into the group as the value of their homes fell below what they owed on mortgages. More ominous is a steady increase in installment debt, a category that includes both student and auto loans -- areas that have recently seen a lot of questionable lending to lower-income borrowers.

 

 

Bloomberg's conclusion:

Whatever the drivers, the data suggest that the 2008 crisis and subsequent economic malaise have left a troubling legacy: A group of the poorest families, numbering roughly 14 million, whose precarious finances make them vulnerable to shocks and limit their ability to contribute to future growth. That's hardly a strong foundation for a healthy recovery.

But mass "deleveraging" is good, they said. It means tons of pent up releveraging and recovery, they said...

While the lying is understandable - after all confidence must be rebuilt at all costs - what is worse is that the Fed believes it can withdraw from QEasing because it is convinced that US society as a whole is able to take on more debt, when in reality a record number of Americans are locked out of the debt market (due to recent or imminent defaults) for years. As a result the Fed's entire logic for pulling out of the market is based on an epically flawed assumption. Which is why, as we explained back in late 2013, we give the Fed a few months of POMO-ess shock and awe for the S&P500 mixed with fears of what a rate hike will do to the market, pardon economy, before the Untaper and the reZIRP fully enter the financial lexicon.

Finally, while we have shown this chart in the past, here it is again. It really does explain everything.