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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
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%
Total Consumer Debt$12.44 trillion100.0%

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?
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
Other$0.33 trillionn/a

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Investor Education

Fact Check: The Truth Behind Five ESG Myths

ESG investing continues to break fund inflow records. In this infographic, we unpack five common ESG myths.

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ESG Myths

Fact Check: The Truth Behind 5 ESG Myths

In 2021, investors continue to embrace environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments at record levels.

In the first quarter of 2021, global ESG fund inflows outpaced the last four consecutive quarters, reaching $2 trillion. But while ESG gains rapid momentum, the CFA Institute shows that 33% of professional investors surveyed feel they have insufficient knowledge for considering ESG issues.

To help investors understand this growing trend, this infographic from MSCI helps provide a fact check on five common ESG myths.

1. “ESG Comes at the Expense of Investment Performance”

Fact Check: Not necessarily

Worldwide, ESG-focused companies have not only seen higher returns, but stronger earnings growth and dividends.

Returns by ESG RatingsEarnings Growth*Active Return**Dividends and Buybacks
Top tier2.89%1.31%0.28%
Middle tier1.35%0.12%-0.02%
Bottom tier-9.22%-1.25%-0.05%

Source: MSCI ESG Research LLC (Dec, 2020)
*Contribution of earnings growth and dividends/buybacks to active return
**Active return is the additional gain or loss compared to it respective benchmark

In fact, a separate study from the CFA Institute shows that 35% of investment professionals invest in ESG to improve their financial returns.

2. “Investors Talk About ESG But Don’t Invest In It”

Fact Check: False

Global ESG assets under management (AUM) in ETFs have grown from $6 billion in 2015 to $150 billion in 2020. In just five years, ESG AUM have accelerated 25 times.

Today, money managers are focusing on the following top five issues:

Top ESG IssuesAssets AffectedGrowth in Assets Affected (2018-2020)
Climate change / carbon emissions $4.18T39%
Anti-corruption$2.44T10%
Board issues$2.39T66%
Sustainable natural resources / agriculture$2.38T81%
Executive pay$2.22T122%

Source: US SIF Foundation (Nov, 2020)

Meanwhile, over 1,500 shareholder resolutions focused on ESG-related matters were filed between 2018-2020. Not only are investors turning to ESG assets, but they are placing higher demands on corporate responsibility.

3. “ESG Investment Strategies Eliminate Entire Sectors”

Fact Check: Not necessarily

First, not all ESG investment approaches are exclusionary.

For instance, in North America roughly 51% of ESG ETFs used an ESG integration approach as of Dec. 31, 2020. In an ESG integration approach, ESG risks and opportunities are analyzed with the goal to support long-term returns.

By comparison, values and screens approaches, which accounted for over 22% of ESG ETFs in North America may screen out specific business activities, such as alcohol or tobacco, or sectors such as oil & gas.

Percentage of ESG TypeIntegrationValues & ScreensThematicImpact
North America50.9%22.5%20.7%5.9%
Asia57.8%34.6%3.8%3.8%
Europe30.8%60.6%8.6%0.0%
Australia28.6%71.4%0.0%0.0%

Source: Refinitiv/Lipper and MSCI ESG Research LLC as of Dec 31, 2020 (MSCI Feb, 2021)

Second, companies are assessed on a sector-specific basis where ESG leaders and laggards are identified within each sector in comparison to peers. In other words, ESG doesn’t mean eliminating exposure to entire sectors. Instead, investors can choose from a range of companies based on their ESG ratings quality.

4. “ESG Investing Is Only For Millennials”

Fact Check: False

Although ESG is popular among millennials, ESG investing is being driven by the entire investor population. In 2019, one study finds that 85% of the general population expressed interest in ESG investing.

Interest in Sustainable InvestingGeneral PopulationMillennials
201985%95%
201571%84%

Source: US SIF Foundation (Nov, 2020)

Sustainable investing goes far beyond millennials—ESG disclosures are quickly becoming requirements for key industry participants, such as institutional investors and listed companies.

5. “ESG Investing is Here to Stay”

Fact Check: True

Climbing 28% in 2020 alone, over 3,000 signatories have committed to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment. As of the first quarter of 2021, 313 global organizations and 33 asset owners have been newly added.

Growth of UN PRINumber of Signatories*AUM Represented
20203,038$103.4T
20192,370$86.3T

Source: UN PRI
*As of Mar, 2020

Central to ESG’s growth is the availability of ESG investments. ESG investing has become more widely accessible—which wasn’t always the case. Over the last decade, the global number of ESG ETFs has grown from 46 to 497.

Why the Facts Matter

As ESG investments continue to play an even greater role in investor portfolios, it’s important to focus on data rather than prevailing ESG myths that are not backed by fact.

Given the recent momentum in investment returns and ESG adoption, data-driven evidence empowers investors to build more sustainable portfolios that better align with their investment objectives.

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Markets

Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices

Lumber prices in the U.S. continue to break records as pressure from both the supply and demand sides of the market collide.

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Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices

Lumber is an important commodity used in construction, and refers to wood that has been processed into beams or planks.

Fluctuations in its price, which is typically quoted in USD/1,000 board feet (bd ft), can significantly affect the housing industry and in turn, influence the broader U.S. economy.

To understand the impact that lumber prices can have, we’ve visualized the number of homes that can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber, one year apart.

A Story of Supply and Demand

Before discussing the infographic above, it’s important to understand the market’s current environment.

In just one year, the price of lumber has increased 377%—reaching a record high of $1,635 per 1,000 bd ft. For context, lumber has historically fluctuated between $200 to $400.

To understand what’s driving lumber prices to new heights, let’s look at two economic elements: supply and demand.

Shortened Supply

U.S. lumber supplies came under pressure in April 2017, when the Trump administration raised tariffs on Canadian lumber. Since then, lumber imports have fallen and prices have experienced significant volatility.

After a brief stint above $600 in April 2018, lumber quickly tumbled down to sub $250 levels, causing a number of sawmills to shut down. The resulting decreases in production capacity (supply) were estimated to be around 3 billion board feet.

Once COVID-19 emerged, labor shortages cut production even further, making the lumber market incredibly sensitive to demand shocks. The U.S. government has since reduced its tariffs on Canadian lumber, but these measures appear to be an example of too little, too late.

Pent-up Demand

Against expectations, COVID-19 has led to a significant boom in housing markets, greatly increasing the need for lumber.

Lockdowns in early 2020 delayed many home purchases until later in the year, while increased savings rates during the pandemic meant Americans had more cash on hand. The demand for homes was further amplified by record-low mortgage rates across the country.

Existing homeowners needed lumber too, as many Americans suddenly found themselves requiring upgrades and renovations to accommodate their new stay-at-home lifestyles.

How Many Homes Can You Build With $50K of Lumber?

To see how burgeoning lumber prices are impacting the U.S. housing market, we’ve calculated the number of single family homes that could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. First, we established the following parameters:

  • Lumber requirements: 6.3 board feet (bd ft) per square foot (sq ft)
  • Median single family house size: 2,301 sq ft
  • Total lumber required per single family house: 14,496 bd ft

Based on these parameters, here’s how many single family homes can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber:

Date*Lumber PriceTotal Lumber PurchasedTotal Homes Built
2021-05-05$1,635 per 1,000 bd ft30,581 bd ft2.11
2020-05-04$343 per 1,000 bd ft145,773 bd ft10.05
2015-05-01$234 per 1,000 bd ft213,675 bd ft14.74
2010-05-01$270 per 1,000 bd ft185,185 bd ft12.77

*Exact matching dates were not available for past years.
Source: Insider

As lumber prices continue to set record highs, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has reported that the cost to build a single family home has increased by $36,000. Most of this cost can be passed down to the consumer, but extremely tight supplies mean homebuilders are unable to start more projects.

The Clock is Ticking

Despite their best efforts to increase output, it’s likely that sawmills across the U.S. will continue playing catch-up in 2021.

“There was a great fear among sawmills to prepare for a downturn. When home buying surged, they could not open up capacity quickly enough.”
– Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors

Analysts are now warning that lumber prices could reach a flashpoint, where affordability becomes so limited that demand suddenly falls off. This has led the NAHB to ask the Biden administration for a temporary pause on Canadian lumber tariffs, which currently sit at 9%.

U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber were first introduced in 1982, and represent one of the longest lasting trade wars between the two nations. The U.S. is currently appealing a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that states its 2017 tariff hike was a breach of global trading rules.

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