Checking In On The American Debt Slave

“Americans are dealing with the economy and their joys and woes the American way…” Here’s the details…

by Wolf Richter of Wolf Street

After the party, the hangover.

Total consumer credit rose 5.1% in the first quarter, compared to a year earlier, or by $184 billion, to $3.824 trillion (not seasonally adjusted), according to the Federal Reserve. This includes credit-card debt, auto loans, and student loans, but not mortgage-related debt. That 5.1% year-over-year increase isn’t setting any records – in 2011, year-over-year increases ran over 11%. But it does show that Americans are dealing with the economy and their joys and woes the American way: by piling on debt faster than the overall economy is growing.

The chart below shows the progression of consumer debt since 2006. In line with seasonal patterns for first quarters, consumer credit (not seasonally adjusted) edged down from Q4, as the spending binge of the holiday shopping season turned into hangover, an annual American ritual:

Note how the dip after the Financial Crisis – when consumers deleveraged mostly by defaulting on those debts – didn’t last long. Over the 10 years since Q1 2008, consumer debt has now surged 47%. Over the same period, the consumer price index has increased 16.9%:

Auto loans and leases for new and used vehicles rose by 3.8% from a year ago, or by $41 billion, to $1.118 trillion.

It was one of the smaller increases since the Great Recession: The peak year-over-year jumps occurred at the peak of the new vehicle sales boom in the US in Q3 2015 ($87 billion or 9%). However, the still standing records were set in Q1 and Q2 2001 near the end of the recession, with each quarter adding around $93 billion, or 16%, year-over-year.

Loan balances are impacted by prices of vehicles, number of vehicles financed, the average loan-to-value ratio, duration of prior loans (when they’re paid off), and other factors. So this chart is not necessarily a reflection of how many new and used vehicles were sold.


The green line in the chart indicates the old data. In September 2017, the Federal Reserve implemented a big adjustment of consumer credit data going back through Q4 2015. This adjustment was based on survey data collected every five years. So routine. The adjustments hit auto-loan balances disproportionately, knocking them down by $38 billion retroactively for Q4 2015. To show the distortive effect of the adjustment – and to show that it wasn’t the collapse of the car business – I added the old data in green.

Credit card debt and other revolving credit in Q1 rose 5% year-over-year (not seasonally adjusted) to $977 billion. This growth rate was down from the 5.6%-6.8% Trump-bump increases that started in Q4 2016 and ran through Q4 2017. So it was somewhat of a disappointment for those wanting to see consumers drown in high-cost (or high-profit) debt.

On a quarterly basis, and in line with seasonal patterns, revolving credit card balances fell by $52 billion from the shopping season debt-pile up in Q4, as the annual hangover began. In dollar terms it was the steepest Q4-Q1 plunge since Q1 2010. In percentage terms (-5.1%), it was the steeped since Q1 2012.

But wait… Q4 credit card balances of $1.03 trillion had been an all-time record, finally beating the record of Q4 2008. And Q1 2018, at $977 billion, set a record for any first quarter, beating Q1 2008 by a smidgen ($973 billion). So Americans did their job piling on high-profit debt.

Student loans in Q1 jumped by 5.4% ($77.8 billion) year-over-year to $1.51 trillion. While a shocking increase, it was the slowest year-over-year percent increase going back to 2007, the beginning of the data series: In fact, between 2007 and Q3 2012, these year-over-year increases ranged from 11% to 15%!

But it’s not like more people are going to college. Higher-education enrollment had peaked in 2010 and declined at least through 2015, according to the last data available from the National Center for Education Statistics. And yet, over the 10 years from Q1 2008 to Q1 2018, student loan balances soared by 146%, from $619 billion to $1.521 trillion. Over the same period, the consumer price index rose 16.9%.

Students added $902 billion to their debts over the past 10 years — a debt that will dog them for decades to come. And for most of this debt, taxpayers are on the hook. But who obtained the money?

A whole economy has sprung up around this bonanza, with entire industries getting fat: Investors in private colleges; the student housing industry, which has become an asset class within commercial real estate; companies like Apple that supply students with whatever it takes; the textbook industry; overpaid top administrators; construction companies and affiliated industries building university-owned projects, from mega-stadiums to glitzy administrative buildings; Wall Street by making it all possible; and many more. But hey, that’s how you get GDP and corporate profits to grow. It’s a dirty job, but some’s got to do it.

This is the brick & mortar part of e-commerce. Read…  As Malls Melt Down, Industrial Properties Heat Up
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