Consumer credit down, but does it show deleveraging?

I have just taken a look at the consumer credit figures for September, released just yesterday by the Federal Reserve. The data do show some modest deleveraging, especially when looking at the recent increase in nominal GDP. However, it is still not clear to me that the scale of deleveraging is great enough to induce a recessionary relapse.

My baseline for deleveraging is Debt to Nominal GDP – when debt to GDP goes down, that shows deleveraging. For example, for the latest data released in September for Q2 2009, Private sector total debt to GDP (incl. financial services) in the U.S. was 292.2% of GDP. Because of the huge drop in nominal GDP, this was actually up from 283.0% when the recession began in Q4 2007. For households, the number was 96.8% in Q2 2009, up slightly from 95.9% at the end of Q4 2007.  What this shows is that deleveraging has yet to begin in earnest as debt levels have remained relatively high even while GDP had collapsed.

The lack of deleveraging is probably a result of financial stress. In the Great Depression, the personal savings rate dropped from 4.5% in 1929 to 4.1, 3.9, –0.9, and finally -1.5% in 1930-1933.  People had to use savings to service debt as the deflationary spiral took hold.

So, in the absence of quarterly data on debt levels, I look at data from things like consumer credit for a proxy.  On a seasonally-adjusted basis, consumer credit declined to $2.471 to $2.456 trillion. That is the lowest since June 2007 and marks the ninth consecutive monthly drop.

However, looking at the non-seasonal data makes plain what is happening:



Nonrevolving credit is now increasing along with GDP. Look at the area highlighted in red; that coincides with the 3.5% real GDP print we just saw. On the other hand, revolving credit is getting crushed. Below is the reason why (click to expand):



Credit from commercial banks and savings institutions have dropped off a cliff.  When you hear people saying that banks aren’t lending, this is what they are talking about. In Q3, banks are lending again (think cash for clunkers) because nonrevolving debt is up.  That’s also why GDP is up. But, revolving credit lines (credit card lines) are being cut.

My conclusion is largely the same as last month, namely I had anticipated more deleveraging than we are seeing. However, consumer credit is only coming down on the nonrevolving side. And given the stabilization in house prices and increases in refinancing activity, I wouldn’t expect mortgage debt levels to be down substantially. When we see Household Debt to GDP levels from Q3, they probably will not be substantially lower than they were in Q2.

This does support recovery but only at the risk of continued high levels of debt to GDP.

G.19 data series – Federal Reserve


Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.