Household Debt Through the Roof (January 25)

Update 326 — Household Debt Through the Roof
as Students, Homeowners, Consumers Releverage

The growing national appetite for debt is not limited to the federal government or to corporate America, as covered in the previous Update.  Households, too, have rediscovered the virtues of debt and they are turning increasingly to nonbank sources of financing.

Are we turning the clock back a decade when credit standards fell to the point where disqualified borrowers received loans too readily?  Are the degrees and homes being financed too expensive, and being financed too expensively? What are the implications of the household debt binge for the macroeconomy?  See below.

At least the government is open again.  For now. Good weekends all…




When household debt rises dramatically on a national basis, severe economic downturns tend to follow — an alarming fact considering household debt hit a record of $13.51 trillion in 3Q18.  Stagnating wages combined with record levels of debt have created a perfect storm that could be pointing to rough times ahead. Here, we look at the state of different classes of household debt and assess how much trouble we are really in.

Student Loans

The student loan debt situation is the most dire of all sectors of household debt, and is getting rapidly worse. Total national student debt was at a staggering $1.44 trillion in 3Q18 — about $80 billion higher than it was in 3Q17.

The average debt burden of a recent graduate is over $37,000 — $20,000 more than it was over a decade ago. The average monthly student loan payment has skyrocketed over 70 percent from $227 in 2005 to $393 in 2016.

Over the past 11 years, student loan debt has grown almost 157 percent, the fastest growing sector of household debt. Interest rates continue to rise. The student loan delinquency rate is the highest for all household debt.

Source: New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax

Last March, Fed Chair Jerome Powell testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee: “You do stand to see longer-term negative effects on people who can’t pay off their student loans. It hurts their credit rating; it impacts the entire half of their economic life…As student loans continue to grow and become larger and larger, then it absolutely could hold back growth.”


Mortgages account for around two-thirds of outstanding household debt, standing at $9.56 trillion in 3Q18 compared to $8.74 trillion in 3Q17. On the surface, credit risk in this area looks low. The Fed’s Financial Stability Report showed mortgage delinquency rates at their lowest since 2000, with low mortgage debt-to-home values and a continued decline in the number of mortgages with negative equity. The Fed’s rosy picture belies a dramatic paradigm shift in the mortgage market since the financial crisis: the rise of nonbank lenders.

Nonbank mortgage originations have risen exponentially over the past decade, particularly for mortgages guaranteed by the government. Nonbank lenders have filled the void left by banks in the wake of the financial crisis, but they are smaller and less capitalized than their bank counterparts. They are also not subject to the same liquidity requirements, leaving them with limited resources to deal with stress on their servicing portfolios.  

While this lending has been sustainable so far, nonbank lenders are vulnerable to higher delinquency rates in the event of a downturn because they issue mortgages of lower credit quality than those issued by banks. A nonbank lender failure could, in theory, leave the government (and taxpayers) on the hook in the event of a crisis.

Auto Loans

Since 2011, car loans have increased from six to nine percent of all US household debt.  Car financing is on the rise, as overall debt and average monthly payments are increase, in large part due to rising interest rates. From 3Q17 to 3Q18, total auto loan debt went up by $100 billion, and the average interest rate for a new vehicle loan was up 31 basis points compared with 2017. Interest rate hikes are a cause for concern as balances continue to grow, with many borrowers owing far more than the value of the car.

By the end of 2017, 4.1 percent of active auto loan accounts were delinquent 90 days or more. On the surface this number seems low, but delinquency levels for subprime borrowers (those with a credit score < 620) have been on the rise, reaching 16.3 percent in 2018 — up from 12.4 percent in 2015. Unsustainable lending and high defaults remain a serious problem in the subprime auto market.

Credit Card Debt

From 2017 to 2018, one year alone, total credit card debt rose by over 20 percent, from $778 billion to $944 billion. Credit card balances have continued to fluctuate since the beginning of the financial crisis, increasing about four percent year-over-year. In 2007, prior to the crisis, credit card debt was around $1 trillion and, at its low point in 2014, was around $600 billion. The US is starting to see upticks in credit card debt similar to the run-up to 2007. While credit card debt is not rising as fast as student loan, auto, or credit card debt, it is now reaching its highest point since the financial crisis.

The problem isn’t necessarily how much debt consumers hold, but the confidence they have that they can pay it off along with the accruing interest. Nine percent of Americans don’t believe they will ever pay off their outstanding credit card debt. In August 2018, credit card accounts had an average annual rate of 16 percent, per the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.  A household with an average revolving credit card debt of $6,929 would owe about $1,141 in interest over the course of a year. Rising interest rates are likely to drive up these costs further.

Debt Fueled Economy

With household debt at record levels, there is little room for error if cracks or bubbles begin to appear in consumer credit. The meteoric rise and sheer scale of student loan debt and delinquency, as well as the rise of non-bank lending in the mortgage market, are major causes for concern. If these warning signs go unaddressed, they could contribute to an economic downturn in the future, which is frequently closer than it appears.  

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