Consumer credit falls 4.4% from year ago levels


The Federal Reserve has just released the most recent data on consumer credit. The data show outstanding consumer credit falling to $2.47 trillion in August from a December 2008 peak of $2.59 trillion – on a non-seasonally adjusted (NSA) basis. That is down 4.4% from the year ago period, continuing the acceleration of the year-on-year change that has been in place for 15 straight months. The seasonally-adjusted data tells an even worse story.

Clearly, consumers are not off to the races. Nevertheless, the NSA data do show a tiny pickup in overall consumer credit, although you have to go to the third decimal place to see it (from $2.460 trillion in July to $2.467 trillion in August.  You have to question the seasonal adjustments given where we are in the business cycle. So I am not using this data set.)

I was especially interested in the Federal Reserve’s data on Q3 consumer credit since I just crunched the numbers on their quarterly data and found that deleveraging in the household sector was not preceding as quickly as I had assumed (if at all).

What I am looking for is a sign of how consumer credit is proceeding as compared to output. But since we don’t have any monthly output data, we’ll have to wait. I will just comment on the trend.

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The trend is down. Because of the decline in higher than normal inflation in 2008, we saw two peaks in year-on-year growth in credit. The first was August 2007 right before the recession began, when, adjusted for inflation, total consumer credit was growing 3.6% year-on-year. This went negative, reaching a trough of –1.5% in August 2008. Before climbing to a second peak of 1.5% in December.  Since then, the wheels have fallen off the cart and we are now down 2.9% year-on-year adjusted for inflation (all of the figures are NSA).

But, remember nominal GDP is down 2.4% year-on-year through Q2.  That is the key here.  When one makes a comparison of nominal GDP to consumer credit, there had been little deleveraging through Q2 2009.  Moreover, since prices are still falling (NSA CPI is –1.5% year-on-year through August), the change in nominal GDP will be lower than real GDP for Q3.

It is still not clear to me that debt levels, when measured as a percentage of GDP are decreasing significantly. I am, therefore, much less sold on the prospect of a secular deleveraging in the household sector than I was yesterday.

And since consumer credit is much more volatile than mortgage-related debt and a much smaller percentage of household debt, I am more interested in how the mortgage market is doing.  Right now, mortgage applications are through the roof because of ridiculously low interest rates.


G.19 data series – Federal Reserve

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