Debts no honest man could pay

October 4, 2011

By Matthew Goldstein

For months now we’ve been hearing a lot about the $14 trillion in debt owed by the U.S. government. But there’s been far too little talk about the almost equally high debt tab owed by U.S. consumers.

The Federal Reserve recently reported that total outstanding debt owed by U.S. consumers was $11.4 trillion, down from its third-quarter 2008 peak of $12.5 trillion. At that pace, it could take years for U.S. consumers to delever, or in plain English–reduce the debts they owe on their homes, credit cards, autos and student loans. But when it comes to the staggering sum of consumer debt in this country, it’s pretty clear that time is not on our side.

In fact, the longer it takes for consumers to pay-down their debts, it simply means demand for homes, autos and other big ticket goods will remain lax. And that means the unemployment rate won’t get much lower than its current 9 percent rate anytime soon. In fact, with all the signs pointing to a double-dip recession, unemployment could very well inch higher in the next few months.

In our Special Report, “A “great haircut” to kick-start growth, we take a look at one radical measure for speeding-up the process of consumer deleveraging, which involves some sharing of losses by banks, bond investors and borrowers. Jennifer Ablan and myself found a growing number of economists, analysts and even some institutional investors who are craving for a creative solution to the consumer debt woes plaguing the U.S. economy.

Our story doesn’t discuss the mechanics for instituting a great haircut to jump start the economy. The specifics of just how to spread the losses around is a subject for a later day and is something that can be dealt with at the negotiating table. But hopefully our story, which you can read here, will get the discussion rolling.

Here is the PDF version of the story with interactive graphics.

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8 comments

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I suppose in the US, just cut the value of every federally backed mortgage in half. Then do the same with all fanny & freddy bonds.

Markets wouldn’t like it, but what can they really do about it? If they whine, cut it again.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

So unfortunately we are stuck in the same place we’ve been stuck since Bush jr took office. No leadership calling for shared sacrifice. This is causing everyone to rail and point the finger at the other guy because they don’t have to pay as well.

Whether you like him or hate him FDR understood that in a democracy if you want a sacrifice for the common good it only works if everyone has to sacrifice and everyone trusts the mechanism to make it fair. It’s time Wall Street and Washington accepted no one anywhere in this country is going to accept thier technical complicated programs. If you do something like this it has to be simple, transparent and fair and everyone has to share the sacrifice. Lose any of those legs and it’s like a tripod, it’ll fall over. None of our plans todate to fix our problem has had all three legs. Thus we keep failing.

Posted by samuel_c | Report as abusive

The only thing i agree is Debt about the size of GDP on consumers is huge… considering the GDP include the rich, banks, companies, etc…
But that was the price of the “american way of life”… only easy credit allows people to buy now: houses, cars, go to school, and other things; that they otherwise would take months, years, decades, or they should never have…
Allows the economy of the future to become a pseudo reality today… companies grow, hire more people, produce more things… all by creating debt…
And when the economy slows growing, cause it will not grow fast forever, unless under the illusion of inflation… all will come down… people will borrow less, credit will slow, production will slow… economy growth will slow to a sustained rate… to a equilibrium… We can not take the top of the bubble as reference to measure health of the economy… nor try to stabilise the bubble…

Not so bad… where comes greed then?
Greed comes when people offer so much easy credit e others get so much in debt, cause everyone wants more and more slices of the pie, that becomes so obvious they will blow sky high… and they dont care… because in the end they bet the gov that allowed all that to happen will come to bailout… (or pay for the haircut)
Greed comes when many companies want higher profits each quarter, even if the economy is slowing… by increase production rate, laying off workers, or shifting production for cheap labour countries to cut prices, until they screw so much their own main consumers that becomes so obvious they will blow sky high… and they dont care… because in the end they bet the gov that allowed all that to happen will come to bailout…
Greed comes when the politicians manage so badly the public finances, spending much more and living on such deficit and debt that becomes so obvious they will blow sky high… and they dont care… because in the end they bet the gov is big and will be able to borrow money yet for many many years … and they can set the bull loose cause no one will need a bailout so soon…

Capitalism is good, and we are capitalists ever since bronze age. The problem is that, without supervision, people tend to FOBAR the capitalism …
Government governs… Government rules… rules rox… no rules= anarchy

Posted by VonHell | Report as abusive

“Shared” sacrifice? The very mention of the word ‘shared’ evokes in the hearts of most Americans a vision rivalled only by so many Taliban rowboats beching that the national ammunition supply runs out.

If america couldn’t hack a shared approach to bAscic medical insuirance, or a government debt reduction plan, what page in Johnny Appleseed’s little green book points the way to writing off a chunk of private debt?

Sharing implies that somebody’s going to be doing with a little less to help somebody who ‘should have known better’.

Everybody going down together almost has an attraction.

Posted by Popsiq | Report as abusive

@samuel_c – I’m ready for the shared sacrifice of a flat tax. Everyone pays the same. Everyone shares in the confiscation of their money by the govt for our “mutual benefit”. The “shared sacrifice” you and the left wingers want is for only a few percent of citizens to pay for everyone else. You can be for this, but don’t call it “shared sacrifice”, call it what it is, “wealth redistribution”, since it only calls for sacrifice of a small percentage of the people.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

I’m for a flat tax with no deductions. I think letting everyone see how much who pays would be great medicine for the system. We’d all pay more though. Right now we all get a shared benefit. I get my tax deductions as long as someone else gets theirs and no one pays what they should.

Shared sacrifice is something like what they did in WWII like a temporary task increase or something else. (Though temporary is a dangerous word with politicians)

Arguing that everyone paying more taxes is somehow only bad for the people with more money who’ve gained the most from the country, the government and its people is disingenuous at best. Show me one person that made that much money who’s company didn’t benefit from technology developed by NASA, during WWII, or used the roads, internet or all the other things the government created from everyone’s money then, I’ll consider you might have a point.

Flat tax is not wealth redistribution. Honestly taxes are what we pay to have roads, power, schools police etc.

Mortgage breaks, child credits, corporate credits etc are wealth redistribution. BTW more money gets redistributed to big corporations than people through the tax code. For all the screaming about how high corporate taxes are they work out to less than half the actual rate after all the tax breaks and credits the companies get.

The really sad thing is that most people with money can’t understand that low capital gains taxes reward people for doing nothing with their money. It’s pathetic that someone who drops their money in a big name corporate stock gets to keep more of what they make than someone who invests it in a small business and builds something from the ground up. Let’s fix that and I think everything else will follow just fine.

@popsiq….yes I know when we mention sharing in this age controlled by baby boomers they break out in hives and get violent because they are too special to actually have to share.

Posted by samuel_c | Report as abusive

I think the invisible elephant in the room is government spending. No one wants to pay higher taxes due to ever increasing government spending. It is out of control. STOP the spending, and cut the debt. I am simply not willing to pay higher taxes so politicians can redistribute my wealth. No, No, and NO! I will be out in the street with a gun and a plentiful supply of rope when the SHTF…I personally think it is time to hang all elected officials from obama down to the local jerk who votes for stadiums I do not want or need.

Posted by CWorange | Report as abusive

The columnist states that the debt has gone down by almost a trillion dollars. This is fantastic news for the US. The gas prices has gone up at a time most likely to sabotage the economy. It would appear that Reuters is a repuglican controlled entity. I had hoped that by logging in and reading Reuters that I would be getting refreshing, honest reporting. Not a tool for corrupt big business.

Posted by RealOscar | Report as abusive