Popular Economics Weekly
“Ya load sixteen tons, whaddya get, another day older and deeper in debt…”, the famous folksong sung by Burl Ives and Tennessee Ernie Ford describes today’s consumers who are still spending huge amounts of borrowed money at the end of this second longest business cycle since the end of WWII. And it can’t last much longer since consumers’ average incomes have barely risen since the 1970s in real terms.
Consumer borrowing picked up in May, according to the Federal Reserve on Monday. Total consumer credit increased $24.6 billion in May to a seasonally adjusted $3.9 trillion. That’s an annual growth rate of 7.6 percent, which is the fastest credit growth since November.
What are the numbers? Economists has been expecting half that gain; $12.4 billion, according to Econoday. Credit grew a revised $10.3 billion in April, up from the prior estimate of $9.3 billion. When we compare the 7.6 percent annual credit growth rate with consumers’ personal income growth rate of 2.7 percent, we see why consumers have become so indebted.
And this borrowing binge cannot last. As noted in the World Inequality Report 2018, in both Europe and the US the top 1 percent of adults earned around 10 percent of national income in 1980. In Europe that has risen today to 12 percent, but in the US it has reached 20 percent. In the same time period in the US annual income earnings for the top 1 percent have risen by 205 percent, while for the top 0.001 percent the figure is 636 percent. By comparison, the average annual wage of the bottom 50 percent has stagnated since 1980.
Interest rates are also on the rise, with the Fed having raised their short term rates (mostly tied to the Prime Rate) 1.75 percent, and making noises about 2 more raises this year. Why? Inflation is growing with the fears of a Trump trade war giving boost to prices in those affected by retaliatory tariffs on imports US companies depend on. The Prime Rate has risen from its bottom of 3.25 percent in 2008 during the Great Recession to 5 percent today—also a 1.75 percent rise.
The wholesale Producer Price Index for final demand of materials that go into finished products rose 0.3 percent in June, seasonally adjusted, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. On an unadjusted basis, the final demand index moved up 3.4 percent for the 12 months ended in June, the largest 12-month increase since climbing 3.7 percent in November 2011.
Any further raises in either interest rates or inflation could tap out those consumers that are most heavily indebted.
Harlan Green © 2018
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