Why It is Hard to Imagine Consumption Reigniting

Mark Thoma wonders about whether consumption will come back any time soon.

The graph below making the rounds uses the Federal Flow of Funds data to look at the ratio of Household Debt to GDP–the ratio rose from around 60 percent as recently as 15 years ago to more than 100 percent now.

If households begin reducing their leverage back toward the long-term average, it will depress consumption for three reasons:

Debt service payments will rise when interest rates rise, and so discretionary income will be lower than it was when households had less leverage ( we are getting some relief right now because of very low interest rates on debt tied to LIBOR or the prime rate).

Households will not take on new borrowing to support spending.

Households will in fact be amortizing their current debt (meaning they won’t spend).

The counter-argument is that average household net worth relative to GDP remains quite normal by historical standards. But here is where the skewed distribution of wealth is a problem. I am reasonably sure that when the next Survey of Consumer Finances is released for 2010, median household net worth will be down. Corelogic says that one in four households with mortgages has negative home equity–this would be about 18 percent of owner households (about 30 percent of owners have no mortgage). If we combine this with the fact that 1/3 of the country rents, this means that the median households has little or no home equity. The median household is not loaded with financial assets, either. According to the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, only half of families have a retirement account, and only 21 percent owned stocks. Put this all together, the median household is not in great shape financially, and the median household consumes a higher share of its income than higher income households.

One more back of the envelope calculation on getting us back to a steady state. Suppose the steady state household debt to GDP ratio is 70 percent. If the national economy uses 5 percent of its income to pay down that debt (which is about 7.5 percent of current consumption), at an interest rate of 8 percent, it would take 8.5 years to de-lever down to the steady state ratio.

Graph: Economist’s View

About Richard K. Green 102 Articles

Affiliation: University of Southern California

Richard K. Green, Ph.D., is the Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He holds the Lusk Chair in Real Estate and is Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Prior to joining the USC faculty, Dr. Green spent four years as the Oliver T. Carr, Jr., Chair of Real Estate Finance at The George Washington University School of Business. He was Director of the Center for Washington Area Studies and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Studies at that institution. Dr. Green also taught real estate finance and economics courses for 12 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was Wangard Faculty Scholar and Chair of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics. He also has been principal economist and director of financial strategy and policy analysis at Freddie Mac.

His research addresses housing markets, housing policy, tax policy, transportation, mortgage finance and urban growth. He is a member of two academic journal editorial boards, and a reviewer for several others.

His work is published in a number of journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Land Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Real Estate Economics, Housing Policy Debate, Journal of Housing Economics, and Urban Studies.

His book with Stephen Malpezzi, A Primer on U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy, is used at universities throughout the country. His work has been cited or he has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Economist, as well as other outlets.

Dr. Green earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his A.B. in economics from Harvard University.

Visit: Real Estate and Urban Economics Blog

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