Personal Debt

April 15, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Until the financial crisis, I thought that other people’s debt was their problem. In 2008, debt became a nation’s problem and a national conversation with two aspects – the moral and the practical. Moral conversations are not confined to church; they drive our politics and policy. Many laws contain some language to contain moral hazard, which is the danger that language loopholes in a law or policy promote the opposite of the intended effect of the law. This is particularly true of many entitlement policies. Let’s leave the moral conversation for another day and turn to the practical aspects of current policy.

Bankers learned their lesson during the financial crisis, didn’t they? Maybe not. A decade of absurdly low interest rates has starved those who depend on the income earned by owning debt. Even a savings account is money loaned to a bank, a debt that the bank must pay to the account holder. In their hunger for income, investors have turned to less prudent debt products. So long as the economy remains strong, no worries.

A fifth of conventional mortgages are going to people whose total debt load, including the mortgage, is more than 45% of their pre-tax income. By comparison, at the market’s exuberant peak in late 2007, 35% of conventional mortgages were going to such households, who were especially vulnerable when monthly job gains turned negative in early 2008.

The real estate analytics firm Core Logic also reports that Fannie Mae has started backing mortgages to those with total debt loads up to 50%. FICA, federal, state and local income taxes can amount to 25% of a paycheck (Princeton Study). Add in 45% of that gross pay for mortgage and debt payments, and there is only 30% left for food, gas, home repairs and utilities, child care, etc.

I’ll convert these percentages to dollars to illustrate the point. A couple grossing $80,000 might have a take home pay of $60,000. The couple has $36,000 in mortgage and other debt payments (45% of $80,000). They have $24,000, or $2000 a month for everything else. This couple is vulnerable to a change in their circumstances: a layoff or a cut back in hours, some unexpected expense or injury.

For those who get a conventional loan despite their heavy debt load, where is the money coming from? Banks suffered huge losses during the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve tightened capital requirements for banks’ loan portfolios, forcing them to improve the overall quality of their debt. As a result, banks turned away from their most lucrative customers – subprime borrowers and those with heavy debt loads who must pay higher interest on their loans. Profits in the financial industry fell dramatically. A broad composite of financial stocks (XLF) has still not regained the price levels of 2007.

The banking industry employs some very smart people. What solution did they create? The big banks now loan money to non-financial companies who loan the money to subprime borrowers. After bundling the consumer loans into securities, the non-financial companies use the proceeds to pay the big banks back. In seven years this kind of borrowing has expanded seven times to $350 billion. Doesn’t this look like the kind of behavior that almost took down the financial system in 2008? The banks say that this system isolates them from exposure to subprime borrowers. If large scale job losses cause a lot of loan defaults, it is the investors who will bear the pain, not the banks. Same song, different lyrics.

The 2008 financial crisis is best summed up with a chart from the Federal Reserve. In the post WW2 economy, the weekly earnings of British workers rose steadily. The growth is especially strong when compared to the earlier decades of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2008, earnings peaked.
WeeklyEarnUK

Developed countries depend on the steady growth of tax receipts generated by weekly earnings. An assumption of 3% real GDP growth underlies the health and continuation of post-war social welfare policies. For more than a decade, the U.S. and U.K. have had less than 2% GDP growth.  Both governments have had to borrow heavily to fund their social support programs.  How long can they increase their debt at such a rapid pace?

I am reminded of a time more than 40 years ago when New York City held a regularly scheduled auction to sell  bonds to fund their already swollen debt load.  None of the banks showed up to bid for the bonds.  The city is the financial center of the world.  The lack of interest stunned city officials.  To avoid a messy bankruptcy, the city turned to the Federal government for a loan (NY Times).

The Federal government is not a city or state, of course. It has extraordinary legal and monetary power, and its bonds are a safe haven around the world.  But there could come a time when investors demand higher interest for those bonds and the rising annual interest on the debt squeezes spending on other domestic programs.

Debt causes stress.  Stress causes anxiety.  Anxiety weakens confidence in the future and causes investment to shrink. Falling investment leads to slower job growth. That causes profits and weekly earnings to fall which reduces tax receipts to the government.  That increases debt further, and the cycle continues.  Other people’s debt is everyone’s problem after all.

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