Skip to main content

Household Finances and a Sustainable Consumer Recovery

Consumption accounts for roughly 70 percent of gross domestic product. Consequently, households will play a substantial role in helping to sustain the recovery.

In thinking about household finances, the obvious primary resource available for new consumption is disposable personal income. From 1990 to 2007, annual changes to personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and disposable income fluctuated within a definable range of roughly 2 percent to 8 percent. However, the recession and financial crisis in 2008 pushed both disposable income and consumption growth negative for the first time in over 20 years. Both have since turned positive again and are approaching their long-run averages. It will take some time to make up for the lost crisis years, but the trend is encouraging.

Figure 1. Personal Income and Consumption

Household spending can also be funded through debt. New individual borrowing as a percentage of GDP is still negative, meaning that on a net, aggregated basis loans are either being paid off (and not renewed) or are defaulting, or a combination of the two. For a sense of historical perspective, consider that the average borrowing level from 1990 to 2000 was about 4 percent of GDP before the loose loan underwriting environment of the 2000s set in.

Figure 2. Household Borrowing

The personal savings rate, at 5.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010, shows that households are saving more, which explains part of the shrinkage in aggregate loans. Some of this contraction can also be explained by higher-than-average defaults on mortgages, consumer loans, and credit cards. While the charge-offs in securitization pools for credit card receipts have declined sharply from their peak in the middle of last year, they are still as high as the peak during the 2001 recession. Whether consumers are paying down existing debt through savings or banks are writing bad loans off, the result is less aggregate debt in the financial system.

Figure 3. Consumer Debt Charge-offs

As debt levels shrink, consumers are spending less of their disposable income on repayments related to mortgages and consumer loans. The household debt service ratio, which measures repayments as a share of income, has been consistently falling since the third quarter of 2008. Much of the drop is likely to be coming from historically low interest rates, which lower debt service requirements on new debt, refinanced debt, or debt that carries floating interest rates. The ratio is now back to the average levels seen from 1990 to 2000. While the ratio may potentially undershoot its long-term average, its sharp decline since 2008 indicates that the debt-service burden has fallen substantially, which may make borrowers more inclined to borrow again and financial institutions more willing to lend.

Figure 4. Household Debt Burden

According to the January 2011 Senior Loan Officer Survey, banks are indeed showing greater enthusiasm to lend. The net percentage of domestic respondents reporting increased willingness to make consumer loans is at its highest level since the credit boom of the mid-2000s.

Figure 5. Net Percentage of Domestic Respondents Tightening Standards for Consumer Loans

Banks are also easing their lending standards, albeit from very tight levels. Still, this is the largest net percentage of lenders easing consumer credit standards since the credit boom years.

Figure 6. Net Percentage of Domestic Respondents Reporting Increased Willingness to Make Consumer Loans

Banks are also reporting stronger consumer loan demand. The net percentage of domestic banks reporting stronger demand has turned positive for the first time since 2005.

Figure 7. Net Percentage of Domestic Respondents Reporting Stronger Demand for Consumer Loans

How does all of this bode for a recovery of consumption, the primary economic driver of the U.S. economy? The data shown here suggest that a sustainable recovery may finally be here. Consumers are still paying down loans or defaulting, but it seems like the worst is behind us and banks are no longer pulling back on lending. Recent memories of shrinking asset values may damp consumers’ motivation to ramp up their expenditures immediately. Still, personal consumption expenditures have probably turned a significant corner and will continue to support our growing economy.

Upcoming EventsSEE ALL