In Debt We Trust

 Going in the wrong direction (privatedebtproject)

Going in the wrong direction (privatedebtproject)

As Slate writer Henry Grabar pointed out this week, the US reached a symbolic (but, admittedly, arbitrary) milestone in March when the total amount of household debt measured by the Federal Reserve reached $12.73 trillion, surpassing the previous high in 2008.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with holding debt - capitalism can’t function without it - but the type of debt that Americans now hold has changed considerably, especially in the last ten years, and the trend is troubling.  This change is inescapably linked to the affordable housing crisis and the larger crisis of late capitalism that we are slowly waking up to. 

Home mortgages make up the vast majority of household debt ($8.63 trillion, 68%), which is to be expected, but student loans ($1.34 trillion, 11%) and car loans ($1.17 trillion, 9%) have risen as a share of total debt to a remarkable degree just in ten years (from 5% and 6%, respectively).  Credit card debt ($764 billion, 6%) and home equity credit ($456 billion, 4%) are the other large debt categories, but like mortgage debt, their relative share of total debt are about the same over 10 years.

I pointed out earlier that the milestone of $12.73t is basically arbitrary because it’s not adjusted for inflation and doesn’t contextualize the overall growth of the economy.  Relative to the size of the economy, this level of debt is 67% of GDP, down from 85% of GDP in 2008 at the height of the crash.  You could argue that this shows we are in better shape than 10 years ago, which is true, but it also shows that even “better shape” is not very good.

So what does this all mean? And how does this inform the affordable housing crisis?

Basically, all of these numbers reinforce the narrative that Americans, particularly of the younger and poorer variety, are struggling to gain security in today’s economy at an unprecedented scale – even as the economy continues to grow and corporate profits continue to increase.

Having a degree, having a car, and having a house used to be affordable ways to gain entry into the middle class.  But these assets are exponentially more expensive today than 30 years ago and we are going into greater debt to get them.  What's worse, they aren’t the guarantees of security they used to be.  That’s not a sign of a healthy economy or society.

There is one simple explanation for why this is happening: workers are not getting paid enough.  Since 1973 the average economic output per worker has grown by 72%.  That’s a steady clip of increased productivity (though it has slowed down) and is partly the result of the Information Technology revolution in the work place.

However, during that same period, average wages have only gone up by 9%.  Since 2000, this gap has gotten even bigger. Productivity has increased by 21% but wages have only increased by 2%.

As the Economic Policy Institute points out in a 2015 report, this was no accident. The explosion of compensation at the top end of the pay scale and the concentration of profit at the shareholder level (as opposed to labor) are the direct results of 30 years of federal regulatory, trade, and tax policies.  We live in a deeply unequal period as a result of a particular form of government intervention.

(As the recent American Airlines effort to raise wages shows, even corporations that try to buck this trend are punished in the market.)

It’s no surprise that by the late 1970s household debt started rising rapidly while personal savings decreased rapidly. By the early 1990s, the average Americans household had more debt than savings (as the picture at the top of this article shows). This trend has only gotten worse, despite a slight dip during the Great Recession. 

Our consumer culture didn’t adjust to a decrease in wages (or even put political pressure on increasing wages.)  It simply created new financial tools to allow us to keep spending.

There has long been the basic idea that there is “good debt” and “bad debt.”  Good debt is an investment in the future, like taking out a loan to build a bigger factory, which pays for itself in the long run. Bad debt is borrowing from the future to cover today, like a pay-day loan or covering operating costs with capital budgets. That rarely works out.

The problem today is that it’s no longer clear what debt is good and bad.  Student loans were generally seen as good debt - an investment in acquiring skills that will pay off in the long run in a higher salary - but its unclear what skills will be valued and at what salary in the near or long term economy.  The cost of undergraduate and graduate degrees have also increased dramatically as we have placed more importance on them as a society – all while their value has become more uncertain.

Nowhere is this debt doubt more apparent than homeownership. Even though homeownership rates are at the lowest they have been in 50 years, 64% of Americans still own their home. This represents the bulk of American households’ wealth and financial security.

As I’ve written before, that’s no accident or organic market outcome either.  It has been a concentrated policy effort at the federal level for 80 years.  We spend $134 billion a year subsidizing homeownership in this country – more than the entire budget of the Dept. of Justice, Education, and Energy combined.

The thinking was (and still is for the most part) that homeownership drives economic growth nationally and economic security personally.  (We really don’t know if that’s the case objectively because our society has been built around subsidizing this theory.) But, despite all of this intervention, these two basic conceits are not holding up in the modern economy. 

First, the idea that homes are guaranteed financial security is largely not true over the long run.  Robert Schiller has written often about how, despite the hype of house flipping or the recent bubble, home values on the national level haven’t increased at all.  For every hot real estate market like Las Vegas, there is a dying one in Youngstown, Ohio. 

Additionally, the foreclosure crisis never really ended.  There are still 3 million Americans underwater in their mortgages and many millions more that are dangerously close.  There has been a steady, if slow, increase in foreclosures in several markets.  Another downturn and we could see another spike.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, there is an entire generation of suburban homeowners in certain markets (the Northeast and Midwest in particular) retiring whose wealth is tied up in homes that no one wants to buy.  The paper wealth associated with a home is only real if someone buys it at that price.  Long term demographics and economic development trends should cast serious doubt on the value of many of these homes in the near future.  

Second, the emphasis on homeownership (particularly in far-flung suburbs) is terrible for the national economy’s future.  All signs point to millennials wanting to own homes just like any other generation, but that doesn’t mean they will want to live where cheap single-family homes are available, because those areas don’t generally have a concentration of accessible, high-paying jobs.

On the flip side, high-paying jobs are increasingly concentrated in cities with highly regulated land use and, not surprisingly, housing prices have skyrocketed.  The economic benefit of high wages are largely gobbled up by big down payments and expensive mortgages, which limits the ability for a household to invest in other purchases.  

The federal government has consciously created the affordable housing crisis through debt on two fronts.  On the one hand, they have spent decades, along with billions of dollars, encouraging suburban homeownership through subsidizing mortgages among other policies, which has counter-intuitively created an asset class that has little re-adaptability as the economy changes along with demographics. Millions of Americans have wealth tied up in their homes that might simply vanish in the coming decades.

And on the other hand, they have instituted 40 years of economic policy that has frozen wages for the majority of Americans while lavishing profits on the top individuals and biggest corporations.  They have allowed increasingly exotic and pernicious financial tools to mask this scandal by allowing people to build massive amounts of personal debt.  Only after the crash did they properly regulate the mortgage market (now 60% of mortgages go to individuals with high credit scores, double from a decade ago) while other debt markets (particularly car loans) are largely under-regulated. 

Because there is no such thing as the free market without government intervention, we must re-examine what economy we want our government to create.  Do we want a debt-riddled society that is financially vulnerable at a near-permanent level? Do we want a society that politically and financially rewards a tiny percentage of the population at the expense of the rest?

Our government has created a homeownership society that is increasingly based on higher levels of debt. It has the power to create an affordable housing society that doesn’t rely on debt.  It’s up to us to make it do so.