Economy Still Burdened With Excessive Consumer Debt

By Comstock Partners

For some time we have maintained that the economy, following the severe 2008 credit crisis, would grow at an exceeding slow and uneven pace, and this is the way it is playing out. This is unlike the garden-variety post-war inventory recessions that were mostly short and shallow, and followed by robust rebounds that quickly exceeded prior peaks. The crisis was caused by an extraordinary debt boom that will take many years to work off and create severe headwinds to economic growth.

Household debt as a percentage of GDP averaged 55% over the past 60 years, but soared to 99% by 2008. It has now declined to 87% and still has a long way to go before returning to anything near normal. Federal government debt has climbed from 56% of GDP in 2000 to 97% as of September 30th, and is undoubtedly higher now. In our view the overall debt is the single most important factor to take into account in analyzing the future growth of the economy. The reduction in household debt since the 2008 peak has been the key factor in dampening economic growth to date.  In fact, household debt has now been down for 13 consecutive quarters after never being down for even one quarter in the entire post-war period!

The effect of deleveraging is not a vague academic theory, but is clearly reflected in the real numbers. GDP in the fourth quarter was only 0.8% higher than it was at the peak four years earlier. In the last four quarters GDP growth was only 1.6%. While fourth quarter GDP growth was an annualized 3.0%, two-thirds of the amount was accounted for by inventories. These probably have to be pared down in the first quarter. By almost any measure the current recovery has been far weaker than any other post-war expansion.

Although a number of recent indicators have shown improvement, there are major headwinds to economic growth. Consumer spending remains weak as a result of sluggish wage growth, declining wealth, a moribund housing market and restricted access to credit. Savings rates have probably dropped as low as they are going to get, and any further strength in spending will have to come from a lot more jobs and higher wages. Employment today is no higher than it was ten years ago despite large increases in population. Consumer confidence, although improved, is still at recessionary levels. According to January numbers, released today, real personal income was up 0.1%, real disposable income down 0.1% and consumption flat.

Housing remains a weak spot. New home purchases are down 33% from the 2005 peak while home prices continue to fall. Almost a quarter of homes with mortgages are underwater. Although published home inventory figures have improved, they do not include 5 million homes either in delinquency or foreclosure or 3 million more that are vacant, but not on the market.

In sum, we believe that the numerous headwinds to economic growth are creating substantial downside risks to the economy and corporate earnings that are not being discounted by an increasingly euphoric stock market that seems on the verge of running out of gas. At current levels the downside risks are far greater than the potential upside rewards.

  1. adsanalytics says

    While debt/disposable income ratio is still high and expected to take years to come lower, the half-full side of the story is that the debt service ratio is below the average of the last 30y and back to their 1990’s level.


    1. David Lazarus says

      Yes but those ratios are false in that they are being achieved at crisis level of interest rates. The moment that rates return to normal the ratio will rocket very rapidly above the previous peaks. Also if you look at the state of the housing market in the Hamptons you can see that it is becoming a burden that even the rich cannot afford any longer. Debt service ratios and affordability are the talk of bubble supporters.

      Deleveraging will take decades for most people as they have had stagnant incomes and so the debt burden for them is massively higher. In fact longer term these effects combined will destroy the American dream for most and will lead to lower participation in house purchase. The problem lies in excessive wealth of the majority residing in their homes and the fact that the real value of these is falling and will fall in real terms for years will mean that further out there will be a crisis in higher education as homes will be unavailable to fund college studies.

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