Monday, February 8, 2010

U.S. Consumer Credit - Being Held Up by Government Loans

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

Consumer spending is the lifeblood of the American economy. Before the Credit Crisis, it was responsible for 72% of U.S. GDP. American consumers don't spend the money they have though, but depend on the money they can borrow. Aggregate U.S. household debt (including mortgages) is actually so large that it is bigger than the enormous government national debt. Consumer Credit has been crimped however since the recession began in December 2007 and experienced the longest continual drop in on record in 2009 and the biggest single month drop ever last November (records go back to 1943). Without a big increase in credit from government loans, things would have been even worse.

The Consumer Credit figures don't include mortgages and other real estate related loans. The total outstanding for these other loans was $2.7 trillion as of December 2009. The total in December 2007 was also $2.7 trillion (there was actually a minor $23 billion increase between the two periods). While it looks like Consumer Credit managed to remain flat for the last two years, this doesn't tell the whole story by any means. A big drop in one area was offset by a rise in another, and that took place only because of federal lending. 

There are two types of consumer credit - revolving and nonrevolving. Revolving is mostly credit card debt. Nonrevolving loans are for fixed periods, such as auto loans and student loans. Credit for revolving loans fell 8% between December 2007 and December 2009. The drop was even bigger from December 2008 to December 2009. While credit card debt was falling (there was a period of 15 months with consecutive drops), nonrevolving loans were increasing and have grown 7% so far since the beginning of the recession. While the Cash for Clunkers program certainly fueled car loans in this category, these are not counted as government loans in the credit statistics. Those government loans that are counted, such as student loans, increased by 89% between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009.  All government loans are in the nonrevolving category, without them revolving credit would have experienced a two-year drop, not a 7% gain.

Decreasing Consumer Credit is not surprising. American consumers were over leveraged before the recession began. Banks have been encouraged by regulators to tighten their lending standards and reports indicate that consumers are having trouble getting bank loans. Unemployment has soared, so this should be the case since fewer consumers are credit worthy. The February employment report indicated that approximately a million workers left the labor force between December 2009 and the early part of 2010 (this is the only way the numbers add up). Consumers have also been saving more because of the poor economy.
Despite less credit, a loss of income from less employment, and less money available for spending because of increased savings, the U.S. government has been reporting that consumers are spending more. The Consumer Credit figures indicate that it's not the consumer, but the government that's spending more.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Will EU Accept Greece's Trojan Horse of Debt?

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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