Outside the Beltway, the Good News on Debt

Realtor Sean Aalai talks to potential homebuyer Jocyln Assarian inside a five-bedroom row house for sale in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Had it with the so-called fiscal cliff? Wondering what comes next now that Republicans pulled the plug on House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B? Take a break from the frenzy in Washington and ignore for the moment the federal government’s red ink. Focus instead on another balance sheet that isn’t getting enough attention: The household balance sheet. Over the past five turbulent years, despite high unemployment rates and falling median income, American households have reduced their debts and shored up their balance sheets. “The aggregate numbers show that households are back to being in pretty good shape,” says James W. Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management. Adds Susan Lund, partner at the McKinsey Global Institute: “Households continue to make very good progress at deleveraging.”

Case in point: the drop in the financial obligations ratio. It measures the ratio of household debt payments to disposable personal income. The obligation side of the ledger includes mortgage and consumer debt payments, automobile leases, rental payments on tenant-occupied property, homeowners insurance, and property taxes. In other words, the gauge captures much of the typical household’s monthly outlay for debts. The ratio hit a record high of 18.88 in the fourth quarter of 2007, according to the Federal Reserve. In the third quarter of this year it had dropped to 15.74, about the level of the early 1980s. (The series starts in 1980.) The reduced strain on household financial resources reflects the impact of low interest rates and less debt.

To be sure, about two-thirds of the gain in household balance sheets has come through mortgage foreclosures and credit-card defaults. Nevertheless, household debt as a share of gross domestic product is currently at 83 percent, far below its peak of 97 percent of GDP in 2008. At the current pace of deleveraging, households could return to their long-term borrowing trend (1950 to 2000) by the second half of 2013, calculates McKinsey’s Lund.

Households should feel wealthier next year. Their net worth plunged a record-setting 25 percent during the Great Recession. The latest readings have household net worth a mere 2 percentage points shy of reversing the loss. That figure should improve with housing market sales and prices showing definite signs of life, especially with the drag from foreclosures lessening. Yes, the current foreclosure pipeline remains full, but the future looks less dire. The rate of mortgages delinquent by 90 days or more—mortgages clearly heading toward foreclosure—fell to 3.5 percent in September 2012, according to the latest data from Foreclosure-Response.org, a joint venture between Local Initiatives Support Corp., the Urban Institute, and the Center for Housing Policy. The number is sharply lower than the December 2009 high of 5.5 percent,

The deleveraging story goes far beyond the household. Corporate America is flush with cash, and the sector has slightly reduced its debt levels. The beleaguered financial services industry has taken far more draconian actions to create a healthier margin of safety.

Such aggressive balance-sheet cleansing by the household and business sectors isn’t all good. By saving more, they are spending less, reducing demand for goods and services. That could have doomed the economy to a severe downturn if not for the big offsetting budget deficits run by the federal government.

Now even the federal government is poised to make progress. Say what? You wouldn’t know it for all the talk of fiscal crisis in Washington, yet the federal deficit as a share of GDP is shrinking as the economy recovers. Specifically, the government deficit-to-GDP ratio reached 10.4 percent of nominal GD during the Great Recession. Despite the economy expanding at a tepid 2 percent average rate, the deficit-to-GDP ratio has shrunk to 6.9 percent. Even if the economy continues to expand at a slow 2 percent pace, says Paulson, it’s likely the government debt-to-GDP ratio will peak over the next 12 to 24 months. The odds favor the lower band of that range estimate if the pace of growth picks up. “We may be at the stage where if we follow historic trends, you see government debt on a path to decline,” says Lund. Paulsen is even more optimistic: “Over the next three years the fiscal issue will fade.”

Got that, Washington? The underlying dynamics of the economy are screaming on-the-mend, including a job market that’s slowly improving, a housing market with a pulse, and healthier private sector balance sheets. Economic optimism would be the watchword of the New Year if it weren’t for the damaging drama of the fiscal cliff. Main Street has done its part.

Everyone is deeply frustrated, but considering the political blunders of recent weeks, maybe the best thing Washington can do is calm down. Stop playing political Armageddon. Realize that grand bargains can do more economic harm than fiscal good. If you must, embrace some form of face-saving, kick-the-can-down the-road compromise. Thanks to the underappreciated health in household balance sheets, the political equivalent of doing nothing will let the economy grow and deleveraging to continue. Indeed, the surprise of 2013 could be how rapid the short-term improvement in the fiscal balance sheet turns out to be.

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