US might be a 'nation of deadbeats'
Americans have been paying down debt but walking away from more.
This post comes from Brett Arends at partner site MarketWatch.
A close look at the data reveals a very different story -- and one that gets far too little airing in public discourse.
Far from paying our bills, the current generation of Americans -- or some of them -- have set records for default which probably have no parallel in the history of the human race. During the last five years, U.S. individuals have walked away from a staggering $585 billion in mortgages, credit card debts and other personal loans. That works out at about $6,000 per household.
And if the numbers are to be believed, there is probably a lot more to come.
Turn on any news program devoted to the economy and you will doubtless hear some Wall Street blowhard telling you that American households have been "repairing their balance sheets" and paying down their debts. They make it sound so virtuous, and they often then segue into sneering remarks about those degenerate Greeks and other Europeans who don't behave in the same responsible way.
The truth is very different. According to the Federal Reserve, U.S. household debt peaked five years ago at a gigantic $13.8 trillion. Since then it has declined to $12.9 trillion -- a decline of about 7%. To put that in context, household debts today still exceed those seen at the end of 2006, near the peak of the bubble. They are three times what they were in 1998.
Furthermore, the majority of that reduction hasn't come from people paying off their loans, but from banks writing them off.
The total debt reduction from the peak, says the Fed, is $954 billion. Loan write-offs, at $585 billion, account for 60% of that. In other words, for all the chest-thumping about how Americans are repairing their balance sheets and how we aren't a nation of deadbeats, in the past five years Americans have walked away from $3 in debt for every $2 they've paid off.
In the first quarter of 2010 alone, about 13% of all credit card debt was just written off.
Households weren't alone. Corporations have defaulted on $35 billion to $40 billion in debt per year in recent years, according to Moody's.
Naturally this has occurred even while the federal government has bailed out bankrupt financial institutions, and flooded the economy with massive deficits, low interest rates and free money to make it all easier.
Heaven knows what the situation would have looked like under a system of honest money.
It's easy to get too sanctimonious. Once a country gets itself into a disastrous debt hole, write-offs may be the only sensible way out. After all, for every reckless borrower there was also a reckless lender. If a debt is not going to be repaid, a policy of "extend and pretend," let alone, say, debtors' prison, is not going to help. So maybe deadbeat economics is the way to go.
But let's go easy on the chest-thumping.
More on MarketWatch and MSN Money:
- Can Bieber make prepaid cards cool?
- 10 things your office won't say
- Banks bury fees in the fine print
- Smart Spending on the go: Get our app for Android or iPhone
- New budget fix: Pawn Mount Rushmore?
- Should we all pay more taxes?
Oh, how quaint. People don't realize the new modern way of paying back money is so easy now that we're much more enlightened than our forefathers about the whole matter, just print, baby, print!
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