Americans Start Borrowing Again

Debt can be a scary concept, although if you spend time with economists they’re certainly generally a little more accepting.  Financial shocks though tend to make people much more wary and over the last decade Americans have severely reduced the levels of debt they incur.

That’s seems to be changing, there are many signs that with memories of the recession fading they are starting to borrow again.  The numbers in the US are as always somewhat frightening, US consumers now owe nearly $13 trillion on things like mortgages, loans and credit cards.  The number is large and in fact exceeds the total that preceded the last financial meltdown.

Our economists look at increased borrowing as a sign of economic growth, of a confident financial future and there is some merit in that opinion.  Yet consumer debt can quickly change from being a positive economic indicator to being deemed unsustainable just as before the housing crash.

Debt at a push can be seen as a short term indicator of a recover but it’s not something to build a healthy economy on. You can see the change on US mainstream TV, consumerism and credit is growing.  Check out the adverts and feelings on local stations, international viewers can buy a US proxy to view the channels online.

Debt undoubtedly is not something which you want in the long term, healthy economies are rarely built on high levels of debt. One of the issues is the lack of stability, you might think a certain level of debt is manageable but if interest rates rise or economic circumstances alter that might change very quickly indeed.

One of the best ways to assess debt is to consider what it has been incurred for.  Credit card debt built up simply on consumerism might boost short term economic indicators but the benefits are short lived.  Mortgages and things like student loans are perhaps more positive, with people actively improving their lives.

This doesn’t mean they are safe either though, as we saw with the mortgage crisis in the US which precipitated the financial crash. This time it is perhaps student loans which are the worry for the US economy.  US students have risen markedly as college costs have gone up and now stands at an amazing $1.34 trillion. What’s more, over 10% of that is more than 90 days past due – a rate that has almost doubled in the last decade.

Debt is safest when you have a stable job and a decent income, but many factors can alter this very quickly. Job loss, economic changes or something like ill health can cause chaos to even a high earner who has high levels of debt.  It doesn’t have to be something this dramatic, interest rates are starting to rise and this can increase the cost of servicing debt very quickly.

Consumers may get use to maintaining high levels of debt to purchase cars, own bigger homes, electronic goods, US Netflix subscriptions and other luxuries yet if these are bought on credit there could be problems in the future.

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