One of the biggest clouds on the economic horizon is the vast amount of debt U.S. households took on during the boom years. The Federal Reserve puts total household debt, including mortgage debt, at about $13.7 trillion, or 125% of annual after-tax income, a burden that many economists believe will take several years to pare down to what they see as a more sustainable level of 100%. During that "deleveraging" process, the logic goes, U.S. consumers -- whose spending makes up more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy and about one-fifth of the global economy -- won't be able to play a leading role in any recovery.
The gloomy forecasts, though, miss an important point: Debts have value only to the extent that they are being paid, and a rapidly rising number of U.S. households aren't doing so. Those defaults are leading to losses at banks, a wave of foreclosures, trouble for neighborhoods and strife for families. But they are also providing an immediate, albeit radical, form of debt relief.
"It's not ideal, because it carries other costs," said Karen Dynan, a consumer-finance specialist at the liberal Brookings Institution think tank who recently served as a senior adviser to the Federal Reserve. But it is "going to help get household balance sheets back to the right place."
If one accounts for defaults, U.S. households' debt burden is shrinking a lot faster than the official data suggest. First American CoreLogic, which tracks the performance of mortgage loans, estimates that some 9.3% of the nation's 52.4 million mortgage holders were 60 or more days behind on their payments as of July. That represents relief on about $1.2 trillion in loans. The official data miss most of that, because the Fed doesn't erase debts until banks have foreclosed, sold the homes and taken the loans off their books, a process that can drag out for more than a year.
As a result, some economists are expecting a sharp improvement as widely watched indicators of consumers' finances catch up to reality. Joseph Carson, director of global economic research at AllianceBernstein, expects the share of households' after-tax income that goes to pay loans, rent and other financial obligations to fall to 16.3% by the middle of next year, well below the average for the 20-year period leading up to the housing boom. As of June, it stood at 18.1%.
No, I am not happy, pleased or even celebrating that this is happening. However, a logical outcome of the wave of defaults is a lower debt/income ratio which has positive long-term implications.