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Debt

Are American Consumers Taking On Too Much Debt?

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How much consumer debt is too much?

Today’s infographic uses extensive data from Equifax to try and answer this question.

We put consumer debt in a historical context, while providing an in-depth look at the latest numbers on different categories of debt such as student loans, credit cards, and mortgages to see how they compare.

American Consumer Debt

In the United States, there are three broad types of debt in the spectrum: government, corporate, and consumer debt.

Government debt consists of federal, state, and municipal debt, and adds to a total of 136% of GDP. Meanwhile, corporate and consumer debt, which together constitute private debt, amount to 197% of GDP.

The History of Consumer Debt

Before diving into the numbers, there are two historical developments worth mentioning that have greatly influenced consumer debt.

The first is the rise of consumer credit through the 20th century.

If you go back to the 1800s, it was a different place:

  • Information moved as fast as a boat.
  • 90% of Americans lived in rural areas.
  • 75% of Americans were involved with agricultural production.
  • There was a stigma around borrowing to buy luxury items, and some saw it as immoral.
  • Credit was only used in essential cases, such as borrowing money to buy seeds for farming.
  • Credit history was oral and based on personal reputation.

Today is vastly different. Information travels instantaneously, the economy is diversified, computers are everywhere, and factories pump out cheap goods that people want to buy. Credit history is universal, and 72% of Americans have at least one credit card.

For more information about the development of credit in the 20th century, check out this motion graphic video on the history of credit cards.

The second factor that greatly influenced today’s consumer debt situation was government intervention in the mortgage markets between 1949 and 2000.

Agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac were active with the following objectives:

  • Insuring mortgages
  • Providing liquidity to the mortgage finance system
  • Stabilizing the mortgage market
  • Expanding the secondary market for mortgages

Between 1949 and 2000, home ownership increased from 54% to 64.7%.

However, that coincided with increases in debt-to-income ratios (20% to 73%) and mortgage debt to household assets (15% to 41%).

The Composition of Consumer Debt

According to Equifax, U.S. consumer debt is at $12.44 trillion. Here’s how it breaks down:

TypeDebtPercentage
Total Consumer Debt$12.44 trillion100.0%
Mortgage$8.96 trillion72.0%
Student Loans$1.27 trillion10.2%
Auto Loans$1.14 trillion9.2%
Credit Card$0.74 trillion6.0%
Other$0.33 trillion2.6%

Consumer Debt Trends

1. Mortgage Debt

Mortgage debt, by far the largest category of consumer debt, peaked during the 2008 Financial Crisis at close to $10 trillion. Today, however, it makes up 72% of total consumer debt at $8.96 trillion.

This debt has been partially fueled by the lowest interest rates in history, which have put mortgage rates at all-time lows.

Since 2010, mortgage defaults and delinquencies have both trended down back towards normal levels.

2. Student Loans

For the first time in history, consumers are more in debt to student loans than any other type of non-mortgage debt.

The amount of student debt per person has steadily increased each year – especially for young people. For 18-25 year olds, student loan debt per person has increased from $4,637 in 2005 to $10,552 in 2015. The average young millennial now owes over 60% of of their non-mortgage debt to student loans.

In total, Americans now have $1.3 trillion in student debt, spread between 44 million people.

3. Credit Cards and Private Label Cards

Credit card spending has been steadily increasing since the Financial Crisis, but it has not yet hit pre-crisis levels yet. As it stands, Americans have $665.8 billion in credit card debt spread between 391.9 million cards.

Debt from private label cards, on the other hand, has surpassed pre-crisis levels. Private label cards are typically used to provide credit at department stores, furniture stores, and other retail locations. It is now at $77.4 billion, though this is relatively small compared to other credit card debt that exists.

4. Auto Loans

Total outstanding balances on auto loans and leases have increased 9.3% year-over-year to $1.14 trillion – putting it at all-time highs and making it the third largest consumer debt market overall.

However, auto loan delinquencies have been generally trending down over recent years.

Putting it All Together

As far as non-mortgage debt goes, consumers have never been more indebted.

However, mortgage debt is what really moves the needle for total debt numbers – and that is still not near levels seen during the Financial Crisis.

TypeAmountAll-time Highs?
Other$0.33 trillionn/a
Mortgage$8.96 trillionNo
Student Loans$1.27 trillionYes
Auto Loans$1.14 trillionYes
Credit Card$0.67 trillionNo
Private Label Cards$0.08 trillionYes

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Central Banks

Visualizing the 700-Year Fall of Interest Rates

Could interest rates enter negative territory permanently? This chart plots trend data over 700 years, showing that it could be a possibility.

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eight centuries interest rates

Visualizing the 700-Year Decline of Interest Rates

How far can interest rates fall?

Currently, many sovereign rates sit in negative territory, and there is an unprecedented $10 trillion in negative-yielding debt. This new interest rate climate has many observers wondering where the bottom truly lies.

Today’s graphic from Paul Schmelzing, visiting scholar at the Bank of England (BOE), shows how global real interest rates have experienced an average annual decline of -0.0196% (-1.96 basis points) throughout the past eight centuries.

The Evidence on Falling Rates

Collecting data from across 78% of total advanced economy GDP over the time frame, Schmelzing shows that real rates* have witnessed a negative historical slope spanning back to the 1300s.

Displayed across the graph is a series of personal nominal loans made to sovereign establishments, along with their nominal loan rates. Some from the 14th century, for example, had nominal rates of 35%. By contrast, key nominal loan rates had fallen to 6% by the mid 1800s.

Centennial Averages of Real Long-Term “Safe-Asset”† Rates From 1311-2018

%1300s1400s1500s1600s1700s1800s1900s2000s
Nominal rate7.311.27.85.44.13.55.03.5
Inflation2.22.11.70.80.60.03.12.2
Real rate5.19.16.14.63.53.42.01.3

*Real rates take inflation into account, and are calculated as follows: nominal rate – inflation = real rate.
†Safe assets are issued from global financial powers

Starting in 1311, data from the report shows how average real rates moved from 5.1% in the 1300s down to an average of 2% in the 1900s.

The average real rate between 2000-2018 stands at 1.3%.

Current Theories

Why have interest rates been trending downward for so long?

Here are the three prevailing theories as to why they’re dropping:

1. Productivity Growth

Since 1970, productivity growth has slowed. A nation’s productive capacity is determined by a number of factors, including labor force participation and economic output.

If total economic output shrinks, real rates will decline too, theory suggests. Lower productivity growth leads to lower wage growth expectations.

In addition, lower productivity growth means less business investment, therefore a lower demand for capital. This in turn causes the lower interest rates.

2. Demographics

Demographics impact interest rates on a number of levels. The aging population—paired with declining fertility levels—result in higher savings rates, longer life expectancies, and lower labor force participation rates.

In the U.S., baby boomers are retiring at a pace of 10,000 people per day, and other advanced economies are also seeing comparable growth in retirees. Theory suggests that this creates downward pressure on real interest rates, as the number of people in the workforce declines.

3. Economic Growth

Dampened economic growth can also have a negative impact on future earnings, pushing down the real interest rate in the process. Since 1961, GDP growth among OECD countries has dropped from 4.3% to 3% in 2018.

Larry Summers referred to this sloping trend since the 1970s as “secular stagnation” during an International Monetary Fund conference in 2013.

Secular stagnation occurs when the economy is faced with persistently lagging economic health. One possible way to address a declining interest rate conundrum, Summers has suggested, is through expansionary government spending.

Bond Yields Declining

According to the report, another trend has coincided with falling interest rates: declining bond yields.

Since the 1300s, global nominal bonds yields have dropped from over 14% to around 2%.

bond yields declining

The graph illustrates how real interest rates and bond yields appear to slope across a similar trend line. While it may seem remarkable that interest rates keep falling, this phenomenon shows that a broader trend may be occurring—across centuries, asset classes, and fiscal regimes.

In fact, the historical record would imply that we will see ever new record lows in real rates in future business cycles in the 2020s/30s

-Paul Schmelzing

Although this may be fortunate for debt-seekers, it can create challenges for fixed income investors—who may seek alternatives strategies with higher yield potential instead.

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Central Banks

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.

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The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?

This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.

The Birth of an Investing Class

Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.

Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.

The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate

Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.

Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.

Dutch Perpetual Bonds

A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.

By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.

Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:

  1. Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
  2. Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
  3. Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal

Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.

Rule Britannia: British Consols

In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.

The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.

Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.

American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes

The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.

The Great Inflation of the 1970s

In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.

The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.

Looking Forward: Cheap Money

Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.

It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?

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