Monday, March 09, 2009

Another Look at Who Is to Blame

In a recent online poll, Time magazine asked its readers who was most to blame for the current economic crisis. Readers rated the guilt of 25 different people on a scale of 1 (innocent) to 10 (guilty). On that scale, the American Consumer rated an 8--even guiltier, according to the public, than George W. Bush or Alan Greenspan. "We've been borrowing, borrowing, borrowing," explained Time, "living off and believing in the wealth effect, first in stocks, which ended badly, then in real estate, which has ended even worse."

But is the American Consumer guilty as charged? Just in time to shed some light on the matter, the Federal Reserve Board has released the long-awaited results of the triennial Survey of Consumer Finances. The latest survey, taken in 2007, reveals the economic status of the average American household at the peak of our supposed profligacy. The survey results turn out to be a friendly witness, presenting evidence not of our guilt, but of our innocence. Yes, the results show our 2007 net worth swollen by inflated housing prices and they reveal the rush of money into real estate. But as in previous years, the results disprove the notion that the average household is deeply in debt.

Let's hear the evidence.

Exhibit 1: For the average household, debt is modest. The median amount of outstanding debt for households with debt (77 percent of all households) stood at $67,300 in 2007. This figure includes mortgage debt.

Exhibit 2: Most debt is mortgage debt. Seventy-five percent of the debt owed by the average household is the mortgage on their primary residence. Even this debt is not overwhelming. The median ratio of mortgage debt to housing value stood at 53.3 percent in 2007. Only 1 percent of homeowners had mortgage debt greater than the value of their primary residence.

Exhibit 3: Home equity loans are not common. Only 18 percent of homeowners had a home equity line of credit, and an even smaller 12 percent had an outstanding balance on a home equity loan. This proportion has not changed since 2004.

Exhibit 4: Few gambled in the housing market. The percentage of households with debts for "other residential properties" (second homes, rental units, investment properties, etc.) climbed between 2004 and 2007, rising from 4.0 to 5.5 percent. According to the Federal Reserve Board, this was the largest increase in the prevalence of debt among all types of debt, evidence of the rush to real estate during the housing bubble. Yet 94.5 percent of households did not drink the Kool-Aid.

Exhibit 5: Credit card balances are modest. Only 46 percent of households carried a balance on a credit card in 2007--a figure that was unchanged from 2004. The median outstanding debt for those with a credit card balance was just $3,000. Among households with bank-type credit cards, 55 percent say they pay their balance in full each month. The average credit card bill last month? Just $250.

Exhibit 6: Only a handful are in trouble. Only 14.7 percent of debtors owed more than 40 percent of their income, up slightly from the 12.2 percent of 2004. Despite this increase, the percentage of debtor households that were 60 or more days late in making a payment fell from 8.9 to 7.1 percent between 2004 and 2007.

The evidence proves that the average American household was on solid financial footing as of 2007. Consumers did not cause the financial crisis. The widespread belief that overconsumption is responsible for the meltdown is rooted in several factors such as falling prices for clothes, electronics, and many other goods (allowing people to buy more with less) and the presence of the large baby-boom generation in the peak spending lifestage.

But the saga continues. Although the Survey of Consumer Finances was taken in 2007, the Federal Reserve Board's analysis examines the impact on households of the financial collapse through October 2008. Housing values took a hit. The home equity of homeowners with mortgages fell from $91,000 in 2007 to $71,600 as of October 2008. The median ratio of mortgage debt to housing equity among homeowners with mortgages climbed 5 percentage points to 58.5 percent. The median value of the stock held by households fell from $35,000 to $22,500 between 2007 and 2008. Net worth also fell. In 2007, median household net worth stood at $120,300. By October 2008, the figure was down to $99,000, according to Federal Reserve estimates.

The sky has not fallen--yet. Note that even after the decline, the net worth of the average household is still very much positive--higher, in fact, than it was in 1998 after adjusting for inflation. But if in its soul searching the American public fails to place the blame for the financial crisis squarely where it belongs--on the financial institutions and government regulators who did not do their job--then consumer confidence will continue to fall, the recession will deepen, more will lose their jobs, and household wealth will plummet. The sky will fall.

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