Will We See a Debt-Financed Consumer Spending Spree?

Jan. 8.09 | About: Financial Select (XLF)

From the Wall Street Journal article "Hard-Hit Families Finally Start Saving, Aggravating Nation's Economic Woes":

Rick and Noreen Capp recently reduced their credit-card debt, opened a savings account and stopped taking their two children to restaurants. Jessica and Alan Muir have started buying children's clothes at steep markdowns, splitting bulk-food purchases with other families and gathering their firewood instead of buying it for $200 a cord.

As layoffs and store closures grip Boise, these two local families hope their newfound frugality will see them through the economic downturn. But this same thriftiness, embraced by families across the U.S., is also a major reason the downturn may not soon end. Americans, fresh off a decadeslong buying spree, are finally saving more and spending less -- just as the economy needs their dollars the most.

The "decadeslong buying spree" reported by the WSJ seems to be a commonly held belief; do a Google News Search of "consumer spending spree" and you get almost 12,000 results.

But the consumer debt data from the Federal Reserve suggest a slightly different story than the one reported by the media. The top chart above shows consumer credit outstanding as a percentage of GDP, which peaked in mid-2003 at 18.7%, and then declined a full percentage point by mid-2007 to 17.7% before increasing slightly to 17.9% by the third quarter of 2008. And 1% of GDP is a lot, about $140 billion.

The bottom chart above shows the growth rate in total consumer credit, which is at the lowest level since the early 1990s, and has been falling steadily since 2001.

What's going on here? It's possible that "consumer credit" reported by the Fed does not include mortgage debt, and homeowners started using home equity loans instead of bank loans around 2002?

Comments welcome.