Friday Rant: First U.S. Increase in Consumer Debt Since 2008 – Good or Bad?

According to, a publisher of credit card statistics, "approximately 51 percent of the U.S. population has at least two credit cards ... [and] on average, today's consumer has a total of 13 credit obligations on record at a credit bureau ... [with] the average consumer's oldest obligation [at] 14 years..." So it's reasonable to assume that credit debt payments have a significant impact on most family's monthly spend.

One positive consequence of our years of economic recession has been that consumers, in the aggregate, finally realized that reducing their personal debt is a wise practice and have generally done so since 2008 -- that is until Q4 2011.

Today's WSJ quotes the Federal Reserve saying "Household debt, including mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and student debt, rose 0.25% on an annualized basis in the fourth quarter of 2011[and] was the first increase since the second quarter of 2008, before Lehman Brothers' collapse and the ensuing financial panic and recession." A significant change in course but a very small numerical increase considering the holiday season. Many Monday morning economists would have us universally believe that debt -- and increasing it -- is bad, and savings is good. Absolutes such as these stem more from an absence of gray thinking than substantive economics.

More importantly, "U.S. households' net worth -- the value of homes, stocks and other investments minus debts and other liabilities -- rose $1.2 trillion to $58.5 trillion from October through December, the first improvement in two quarters. The increase came as the Dow Jones Industrial Average rallied nearly 12%. A measure of households' disposable personal income jumped, helping Americans keep a lid on debt, which fell to 113% of disposable income from 118% at the end of 2010." Once again, this a rather small snapshot but, none-the-less, portends an interesting possible shift.

If there's a take away here, it's that consumer confidence is becoming unstuck and ever so slightly improving -- not that U.S. consumers are about to resume their irresponsible pre-recession credit binge spending. A very interesting longer trend revealed by the Fed's graph is that since 2010, debt as a percentage of GDP, has fallen sharply for households and financial businesses, remained flat for non-financial businesses and State and Local governments, and risen sharply at the Federal government level.

And, of course, all of the above will be totally meaningless if we can't curb the acute ongoing panic -- aka the 'feeding frenzy' -- in oil futures trading.

- William Busch

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