Is Consumer Debt Constraining Economic Growth?

by: Steven Hansen


Consumer debt continues to grow.

A larger and larger proportion of consumer spending is fueled by consumer loans.

What would happen to consumer spending if the Federal Reserve gets its wish of higher inflation?

Whenever I think that consumer credit growth must be nearing the tipping point, the next month consumer credit grows again. After all, logic dictates the more debt grows the harder it becomes to repay the debt and still be able to buy necessities.

The graph below shows the ratio of consumer credit outstanding to personal consumption expenditures (this data series does not include mortgages) is now above the pre-Great Recession high, and well above the averages before the mid 1990s.

Ratio of Total Consumer Loans Outstanding to Consumer Spending

The reality is that consumer loans bear less interest in the New Normal than they have historically. The percent of consumer disposable income used to repay consumer loans (not including mortgages) is shown on the below graph. Currently the amount of income needed to repay debt seems below average for periods of economic expansion.

Still, the income needed to repay debt is increasing - and what happens if the Federal Reserve gets its wish that inflation should pick up?

To get a feel of inflation adjusted consumer credit, the following graph is inflation adjusted consumer credit using the CPI-U (less shelter) - this is expressing consumer credit in 1982 dollars. It is evident on an inflation adjusted basis, consumer credit is growing at a fairly good clip.

Inflation Adjusted Consumer Credit

Also, an interesting graphic showing the consumer's ratio of liquid assets to total liabilities is showing an improvement in liquidity when compared to liabilities. But consider that this ratio is well below periods of rapid expansion.

Ratio of Consumer Liquid Assets to Total Consumer Liabilities

The only indicator that consumer credit is in a "normal" range is the percent of consumer disposable income used to repay consumer loans. This indicator will evaporate in seconds if the Fed gets its wish to have inflation pick up.

I believe the Federal Reserve's little game of maintaining artificially low interest rates and other abnormal monetary games will come home to roost. If inflation picks up, there is an immediate consumer credit bubble triggered from revolving credit. If the Fed's games put the USA in a deflationary spiral, the USA will still have a consumer credit bubble resulting from the principal being harder to repay. The only hope may be that the economy keeps stumbling along.

My usual weekly wrap is in my instablog.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.