You often hear me harping on the dangers of too much debt, and I keep my eyes peeled for significant work that backs up my concerns. In today’s Outside the Box good friend Dr. Lacy Hunt of Hoisington Investment Management gives us more ammunition to take on those who just don’t seem to get that the endless piling up of debt is not a sustainable way to run an economy.
The most striking feature of the US economy’s performance in 2015, according to Lacy, was a massive advance in nonfinancial debt that kept the economy stuck in the doldrums of subpar growth. US nonfinancial debt rose 3.5 times faster than GDP last year. (Nonfinancial debt is the sum of household debt, business debt, federal debt, and state and local government debt.)
Lacy points out unfavorable trends in each component of nonfinancial debt:
Delinquencies in household debt moved higher even as financial institutions continued to offer aggressive terms to consumers, implying falling credit standards. Furthermore, the New York Fed said subprime auto loans reached the greatest percentage of total auto loans in ten years. Moreover, they indicated that the delinquency rate rose significantly.
Last year business debt, excluding off balance sheet liabilities, rose $793 billion, while total gross private domestic investment (which includes fixed and inventory investment) rose only $93 billion. Thus, by inference this debt increase went into share buybacks, dividend increases and other financial endeavors…. When business debt is allocated to financial operations, it does not generate an income stream to meet interest and repayment requirements. Such a usage of debt does not support economic growth, employment, higher paying jobs or productivity growth. Thus, the economy is likely to be weakened by the increase of business debt over the past five years.
U.S. government gross debt, excluding off balance sheet items, gained $780.7 billion in 2015 or about $230 billion more than the rise in GDP….
The divergence between the budget deficit and debt in 2015 is a portent of things to come. This subject is directly addressed in the 2012 book The Clash of Generations, published by MIT Press, authored by Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns. They calculate that on a net present value basis the U.S. government faces liabilities for Social Security and other entitlement programs that exceed the funds in the various trust funds by $60 trillion. This sum is more than three times greater than the current level of GDP.