Consumer debt is soaring. That’s good news (for now).

July 8, 2013

America is starting to re-leverage itself.

That's the implication of new data out Monday afternoon that shows that consumer credit -- credit cards, auto loans, student loans, basically every form of debt other than mortgages -- is rising by leaps and bounds. According to the Federal Reserve's monthly report, consumer debt rose $19.6 billion in May, an 8.3 percent annual rate. If that rate of increase were sustained it would mean there'd be an extra $235 billion in consumer credit outstanding a year from now. That would amount to more than $2,000 per household.


In billions of dollars.  Source: Federal Reserve

This particular data series is jumpy, and there are broader and more reliable measures of consumer debt (particularly those that include mortgages), such as these quarterly numbers prepared by the New York Fed. But even if the May consumer credit numbers overstate the pace at which Americans are escalating their borrowing, it fits with other data suggesting that the post-crisis period of deleveraging -- of paying down debts -- has ended.

Here's the glass-half-full way of looking at this: Americans are finally feeling more confident about the economy and thus willing to take on debt. Lenders, meanwhile, are growing more comfortable extending loans. The spending enabled by this rising consumer debt can help create a virtuous cycle in which more demand for goods and services creates more jobs, which creates rising income. Indeed, more borrowing by households (and the spending that results) is likely offsetting some of the pain caused by federal spending cuts and deficit reduction.

But anyone who lived through the financial crisis and recession, in which excessive household debt was a major contributing factor, has to feel a little squeamish about how quickly consumer credit is rising. As the chart below shows, after falling from mid-2008 to late 2010, consumer credit has been on something of a tear. The $2.84 trillion level in May is a new record in non-inflation-adjusted terms. And credit outstanding is already back up to 2006 levels as a percentage of GDP (though because interest rates are lower, the cost of servicing that debt is quite a bit lower).

Source: Federal Reserve, BEA
Source: Federal Reserve, BEA

There's nothing to panic about yet. Debt-to-income ratios are quite low, and it may be sensible for people to take advantage of very low interest rates to buy a car or some new furniture. Indeed, that's the very goal of the Fed's low-rate policies. As Michael Feroli of JPMorgan notes, "Over the last year total consumer credit outstanding has grown at around a 5.5%-6.0% rate, about the same pace as the growth of nominal consumer spending on durable goods -- the type of consumer purchase liable to be financed -- and so in that sense the recent expansion of consumer credit is about what might be expected in a normal credit supply environment."

At the same time, these numbers are worth keeping an eye on. If we finally achieve the long-sought economic recovery, but do so on the backs of an unsustainable run-up in household debt, it will be a pyrrhic victory indeed.

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Brad Plumer · July 8, 2013