WSJ on De-Leveraging and the Economy

The Journal on page one today says we’re experiencing a “Drought of Credit.” I’m not sure it shows that, but the story does provide a look at the years-long problems the economy faces.

The paper reports that credit in August was down a seasonally adjusted 5.8 percent from a year ago. Revolving debt like credit cards dropped 13 percent, while term loans were down 1.6 percent. But it seems that much of this drought of credit is actually from consumers paying down debt or from banks themselves charging off bad loans.

And it ALSO seems like it’s a very good thing that credit card debt is down 13 percent. After all if there’s a consensus in this mess it’s that the entire country is too much in hock. How do you get out of hock? Not borrowing as much is a good idea.

Total consumer credit outstanding has shrunk some $119 billion, or 4.6%, from its peak in July 2008, to $2.46 trillion.

Most of that decline—$76 billion—has been in credit-card debt. In other words, that’s less money consumers are paying out every month in nose-bleed interest charges.

Wouldn’t it be great news if that $2.46 trillion were $1.46 trillion? That would mean healthier consumers and a healthier economy, not a debt-fueled mirage like much of the economic growth of the Bush era.

The WSJ points to this, but notes (emphasis mine):

This pullback in borrowing and a disinclination to spend has important ramifications for the economy, as consumer spending amounts to about 70% of U.S. gross domestic product. While over the very long term, reducing the massive debt load in the economy may translate into healthier growth, efforts to rein it in appear likely to restrain the recovery for some time.

Hey, cake and eat it too and all that. The entire economy faces a no-win situation: de-leverage and be better in the longer-term or re-inflate the bubble and just hope the problem goes away?

Alas, the government isn’t structured particularly well to deal head-on with a medium-term (several years) project like this. There’s always that mid-term election creeping up to tie hands when the economy’s in the tank. And for a first-termer like Obama, there’s re-election to think about.

Because if Americans spend his first term de-leveraging, meaning paying down their debt, then the money you’re spending to pay off the bank is money you don’t have to spend to stimulate the economy, 70 percent of which depends on consumer spending.

So, this is a critical angle for the press to be watching: What will the administration do about these structural imbalances? From this Times story yesterday, it sure looks like the government is thinking short-term.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.