Getting U.S. Debt Binge Under Control

by: Wade Slome, CFA

Given the endless daily reminders about our federal government’s insatiable appetite for debt, the inevitable collapse of the dollar, and the potential for civil unrest, the average citizen might be surprised to find out the overall debt situation has actually improved. While our federal debt has been exploding (see also Investing Caffeine D-E-B-T article), the households and businesses have been tightening their belts and cutting down on the debt binge of recent years. In fact, the overall debt for the U.S. grew at the slowest rate in a decade according to The Business Insider. [click images to enlarge]

Source: The Business Insider. Steady debt growth decline.

As you can see from the nitty-gritty in the Federal Reserve chart below, total Nonfinancial Debt grew at +2.8% in the 3rd quarter of 2009 (comprised of -2.6% Household Debt; -2.6% Business Debt; +5.1% State & Local Government Debt; and +20.6% Federal Debt).

What does this all mean? Not surprisingly, we are seeing the same trends in the debt figures that we are seeing in the components of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). We learned from our Economics 101 class that the equation for GDP = C + I + G + (NX), which explains the components of economic growth.

  • C = Consumer spending (or private consumption)
  • I = Investment (or business spending)
  • G = Government spending
  • NX = Net exports (or exports – imports)

Consumer spending has been the biggest driver of growth before the financial crisis (fueled in part by the contribution of debt growth), accounting for more than 2/3 of our GDP. Now, with the consumer retrenching dramatically – spending less and saving more – we are seeing government spending (i.e., stimulus) pick up the slack.

These same dynamics are playing out in the total debt figures. Since the consumer is retrenching, they are saving more and paying down debt. Business owner debt has been chopped too, either by choice or because the banks simply are not lending. Here again, the government is picking up the slack by ramping up the debt growth.

Encouragingly, all is not lost. Economic principles, like the laws of physics, eventually take hold. Fortunately consumers and businesses have gone on a crash diet from debt – and the banks haven’t accommodated the pleading cash-starved either. Now legislators in our nation’s capital must do their part in dealing with the weighty spending. The overall debt progress is heartening, but Uncle Sam still needs to get off the Ho-Hos and Twinkies and start shedding some of that binge-related debt.

Read Full Business Insider Article

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