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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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Chart of the Week

How the Modern Consumer is Different

We all have a stereotypical image of the average consumer – but is it an accurate one? Meet the modern consumer, and what it means for business.

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How the Modern Consumer is Different

How the Modern Consumer is Different

There is a prevailing wisdom that says the stereotypical American consumer can be defined by certain characteristics.

Based on what popular culture tells us, as well as years of experiences and data, we all have an idea of what the average consumer might look for in a house, car, restaurant, or shopping center.

But as circumstances change, so do consumer tastes – and according to a recent report by Deloitte, the modern consumer is becoming increasingly distinct from those of years past. For us to truly understand how these changes will affect the marketplace and our investments, we need to rethink and update our image of the modern consumer.

A Changing Consumer Base

In their analysis, Deloitte leans heavily on big picture demographic and economic factors to help in summarizing the three major ways in which consumers are changing.

Here are three ways the new consumer is different than in years past:

1. Increasingly Diverse
In terms of ethnicity, the Baby Boomers are 75% white, while the Millennial generation is 56% white. This diversity also transfers to other areas as well, such as sexual and gender identities.

Not surprisingly, future generations are expected to be even more heterogeneous – Gen Z, for example, identifies as being 49% non-white.

2. Under Greater Financial Pressure
Today’s consumers are more educated than ever before, but it’s come at a stiff price. In fact, the cost of education has increased by 65% between 2007 and 2017, and this has translated to a record-setting $1.5 trillion in student loans on the books.

Other costs have mounted as well, leaving the bottom 80% of consumers with effectively no increase in discretionary income over the last decade. To make matters worse, if you single out just the bottom 40% of earners, they actually have less discretionary income to spend than they did back in 2007.

3. Delaying Key Life Milestones
Getting married, having children, and buying a house all have one major thing in common: they can be expensive.

The average person under 35 years old has a 34% lower net worth than they would have had in the 1990s, making it harder to tackle typical adult milestones. In fact, the average couple today is marrying eight years later than they did in 1965, while the U.S. birthrate is at its lowest point in three decades. Meanwhile, homeownership for those aged 24-32 has dropped by 9% since 2005.

A New Landscape for Business?

The modern consumer base is more diverse, but also must deal with increased financial pressures and a delayed start in achieving traditional milestones of adulthood. These demographic and economic factors ultimately have a ripple effect down to businesses and investors.

How do these big picture changes impact your business or investments?

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Central Banks

Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt

See the latest levels of government debt, based on the IMF’s most recent data. Where does your country sit in the snowball?

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Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt

Over the last five years, markets have pushed concerns about debt under the rug.

While economic growth and record-low interest rates have made it easy to service existing government debt, it’s also created a situation where government debt has grown in to over $63 trillion in absolute terms.

The global economic tide can change fast, and in the event of a recession or rapidly rising interest rates, debt levels could come back into the spotlight very quickly.

The Debt Snowball

Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net and it rolls the world’s countries into a “snowball” of government debt, colored and arranged by debt-to-GDP ratios. The data itself comes from the IMF’s most recent October 2018 update.

The structure of the visualization is apt, because debt can accumulate in an unsustainable way if governments are not proactive. This situation can create a vicious cycle, where mounting debt can start hampering growth, making the debt ultimately harder to pay off.

Here are the countries with the most debt on the books:

RankCountryDebt-to-GDP Ratio (2017)
#1Japan237.6%
#2Greece181.8%
#3Lebanon146.8%
#4Italy131.8%
#5Portugal125.7%
#6Sudan121.6%
#7Singapore111.1%
#8United States105.2%
#9Belgium103.4%
#10Egypt103.0%

Note: Small economies (GDP under $10 billion) are excluded in this table, such as Cabo Verde and Barbados

Japan and Greece are the most indebted countries in the world, with debt-to-GDP ratios of 237.6% and 181.8% respectively. Meanwhile, the United States sits in the #8 spot with a 105.2% ratio, and recent Treasury estimates putting the national debt at $22 trillion.

Light Snow

On the opposite spectrum, here are the 10 jurisdictions that have incurred less debt relative to the size of their economies:

RankCountryDebt-to-GDP Ratio (2017)
#1Macao (SAR)0.0%
#2Hong Kong (SAR)0.1%
#3Brunei2.8%
#4Afghanistan7.0%
#5Estonia9.0%
#6Botswana14.0%
#7Russia15.5%
#8Saudi Arabia17.2%
#9DRC18.1%
#10Paraguay19.5%

Note: Small economies (GDP under $10 billion) are excluded in this table, such as Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands

Macao and Hong Kong – both special administrative regions (SARs) in China – have virtually zero debt on the books, while the official country with the lowest debt is Brunei (2.8%).

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