Consumer Debt Hits an All-Time High

For many American households, the recession was a time to pay off debt and get their finances in order—whether they wanted to or not. But according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds, Americans are taking on debt once again. The difference is that this time we’re borrowing to finance new cars, college tuition, and other consumer goods.

As the figure above shows, American household debt peaked in 2007 and has since fallen 15 percent. Home mortgage debt accounted for much of the decline—it’s dropped 22 percent since 2007. Consumer debt, on the other hand, has continued to increase and just reached an all-time high of $3.2 trillion.

Americans have added about $100 billion of student debt a year to their balance sheets since 2008. Credit cards and auto loans have also come roaring back, particularly auto loans. The amount of outstanding auto debt is the highest it’s ever been.

Auto and credit card debt, while overall much smaller than student or mortgage loans, is in some ways more risky. Student loans and mortgage debt both finance an asset that’s expected to increase in value. A mortgage finances real estate, which has good odds of increasing in value or, at least, holding your housing costs stable for 30 years. Student debt is an investment in future earnings. There’s no guarantee, but the odds are if you finish college, your salary will, over time, recoup your investment. So while the explosion in student debt and the rising delinquency rate are troubling, at least some of the debt can be justified: It’s a leveraged investment that has a decent chance of paying off.

That’s often not the case for auto loans and goods bought with a credit card. A reliable car may be a necessary expense for some, but as an asset it’s guaranteed to depreciate. Beyond safety and reliability, there’s little investment value in buying a new car.

It seems the increase in auto spending was not driven solely by Americans buying the cheapest, safest car they could find. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, spending on cars has increased 35 percent since the recession, almost all on new cars. Spending on repairs and net used cars has barely budged. The surge in new-car buying is partially because households that cut back on big-ticket items during the recession are spending again. But the fact that spending seems to be coming at the expense of more debt suggests Americans are putting themselves in a riskier financial position. They may have less debt overall, but an increasing share of that debt finances consumption that only declines in value.

Consumption per capita has been rising since the recession, despite stagnant income. This may revive demand for now, but the financial crisis showed that consumption, financed by debt, is not the path to resilient growth.

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​America’s skyrocketing credit card debt

The U.S. economy may be strengthening, but by one measure Americans are flunking the basics of personal finance.

Credit card debt is ballooning, leaving American households with a net increase of $57.1 billion in new credit card debt in 2014, according to a new survey from CardHub. The credit card comparison site said it’s forecasting new credit card debt will rise 5 percent in 2015, reaching $60 billion this year.

While the increased spending could signal that Americans are feeling more sanguine about their prospects and the economy, it’s also a cause for concern given that most workers aren’t seeing the type of wage growth that would support that higher spending. The surge has left the average household credit card balance at almost $7,200, or not far from the $8,300 level that CardHub considers unsustainable.

 “We’ve now had six consecutive quarters of year over year increases in our credit card debt load,” CardHub said in the study. “As a result, we must strive to remember the corrosive impact of debt on household finances during the recession and work to get out from under its influence before the burden becomes unbearable again.”

While Americans are carrying more debt, their earnings are barely ahead of where they were a decade ago. Household earnings have increased only 2 percent during the past 10 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts said in a study issued last month.

“That $8,300 figure was the average credit card balance back in the throes of 2008 when the economy started taking the downturn,” said CardHub spokeswoman Jill Gonzalez. “This is a sign that Americans haven’t really learned their lesson. Their attitude toward credit card debt hasn’t improved since the recession.”

On the other hand, Americans are feeling more positive about the economy, which is also reflected in their credit card debt, she added. The company expects 2015 to be a record year for auto sales, as Americans shop for new vehicles amid a brighter outlook, Gonzalez said.

More than half of Americans say they’re financially insecure, citing concerns ranging from student loans and credit card debt to a lack of income, Pew found. With more than half saying they aren’t prepared for a financial emergency, American’s rising credit card debt could pose a problem if interest rates rise or the economy falters.

Still, some signs show that Americans are handling their debt levels, thanks to an improving job market. The credit card charge-off rate, or the percentage of debt that’s declared unrecoverable by credit card companies, is about 2.89 percent, the lowest since 1985, CardHub said.

“While this speaks volumes about the strength of the economy, indicating that more people have jobs and are able to stay current on their financial obligations, the prodigious amount of debt that we continue to rack up indicates that consumer attitudes toward money have not improved since the Great Recession,” the study noted.

Indeed, credit card debt has surged in the last two years, CardHub found. Last year’s $57.1 billion in new card debt is a jump of 47 percent compared with 2013 and a 55 percent leap from 2012.

Aimee Picchi, CBS Moneywatch

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Consumers Piling Up Credit Card Debt

Consumers are on track to pile up almost as much new credit card debt this year as they didlast year, which was one of the worst years for accumulating debt, says the CardHub 2015 Credit Card Debt Study released Monday.

At the same time, consumers paid off more debt during the first quarter of 2015 than inprevious years, but that is not as good as it seems because they had a high debt level to start with, says CardHub, a consumer credit card research organization.

Consumers paid off $34.7 billion in debt in the first quarter, a 7 percent increase over the first quarters in both of the past two years. But the end of 2014 saw new debts of $57 billion for the year, the largest buildup of credit card debt in recent years. CardHub projects this year’s new debt will reach similar levels at $55.8 billion.

New debt was $40 billion in 2013 and $36.4 billion in 2012 .

Consumers started this year with an average household credit card debt of $7,177, the highest it has been in six years. Total credit card debt at the end of the first quarter was $831.2 billion, a decrease from the end of 2014 when it stood at $872.2 billion.

Despite the first quarter improvements in debt pay down, U.S. consumers’ credit card habits show signs of regression to pre-recession levels, CardHub says. “The second quarter of 2015 will therefore offer a lot of context to our current trajectory, enabling us to better authenticate trends that appear to be emerging,” says the report.

Credit card debt gives an indication of the U.S. economy and of consumers’ financial health, says CardHub.

Karen Demasters

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