US: Drowning in Debt While Tycoons Laugh All the Way to the Bank

Although the Trump administration is hugely bullish on the American economy, citing healthy stock market gains and falling unemployment, there are signs the economy is about as schizophrenic as it has been in history, with growing imbalances that the administration shows every sign of exacerbating.

Although consumer confidence climbed to a 17-year high in November according to the Conference Board and the EU, Japan, China and the US all appear headed in the right direction economically, there are some deeply concerning issues.

US consumers and students are drowning in debt while administrative and congressional actions appear determined to make the rich richer while providing no relief for them.

The effect on Asia is difficult to measure although the US remains by far the world’s biggest economy, accounting for 25 percent of world gross domestic product in nominal terms. Although in PPP terms China may be larger, GDP per capita for the US is US$59,609 versus US$16,676 in China. In nominal terms, China’s GDP per capita further falls to US$8,480.

President Trump’s economic package seems to consist entirely of voiding Obama-era restrictive regulations. Besides voiding the TransPacific Partnership omnibus trade pact, he is making serious sounds about sanctions for China. The NAFTA negotiations are also worrisome given the amount of US-oriented trade that has been deflected to Mexico from Asia.

A list of things that are badly wrong in the US doesn’t prove much on its own although rising labor shortages could spur inflation, putting an end to the global picnic brought on by flat interest rates for more than a decade.

That doesn’t seem to concern the country’s economists. Goldman Sachs chief economist and Head of Global Economics and Markets Research Jan Hatzius says “the US economy has made an enormous amount of progress. Our baseline is that we’ll continue to be in a fairly friendly environment for the foreseeable future, but the concern and the focus should be on avoiding too much of a good thing.”

Nor is Hatzius alone. The consensus is that the world is in a sweet spot. But it is worth pointing out, as contrarian economist Tim Hartford in the Financial Times, did in 2014, that “in 2008 the consensus from forecasters was that not a single economy would fall into recession in 2009,” which saw the worst meltdown since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Although blue-collar wages have been rising and the economy is burbling along at a 3.2 percent annual clip, the current situation appears to be particularly a good thing for billionaires. The Institute for Policy Studies has famously warned that Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates control as much wealth as 160 million people, the entire bottom half economically of the American population.

All three – along with another 400 millionaires – cautioned against an additional tax cut for the wealthy. The Congress didn’t listen. The tax reform act signed by President Trump on Dec. 20 is expected to deliver as much as 80 percent of the benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent of households and is expected to add another US$1 trillion – US$1,000,000,000,000 – to the national debt.

Meanwhile, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, one in five US households – more than 29 percent – have zero or negative net worth. “Underwater households,” according to the report, “make up an even higher share of households of color. Over 30 percent of black households and 27 percent of Latino households have zero or negative net worth to fall back on.”

“Subprime borrowers” – the same people who sank the US housing market in 2008 – are US$282 billion in debt for car loans and having serious trouble paying the money back, according to data from the New York Fed.

Homeownership rates in America are at all-time lows according to US Mortgage Market Statistics although real estate values finally surpassed their pre-crisis levels of 2008 – nine years later. Real estate owned by individuals in the United States is valued at US$24 trillion, with mortgages reaching US$9.9 trillion. This means that Americans have $13.9 trillion in homeowners’ equity. This is the highest value of home equity Americans have ever experienced although the Fed’s threatened four interest rate increases promised for 2018, and with the dampening effect of the tax bill’s cut in mortgage interest deductions in place, more households could go underwater.

With employment tightening to the point where employers are scouring prisons for workers in Washington state and Wisconsin, according to the New York Times on Jan. 13. Median hourly wages, which have stalled in real terms since 1973 at about US$17.50 according to the Economic Policy Institute, may start to move up given the labor shortages. But in New York, according to The Guardian, the hourly wage required to comfortably rent a one-bedroom is $27.29 in New York and $22.98 in Los Angeles.

A stunning 35 percent of US families are 180 days behind in paying their monthly bills and have been subject to debt collection agencies, which collect anywhere between 15 and 35 percent of what they can recoup. And they are running more into debt. Credit card debt increased by US$11.2 billion in November, the heart of spending for the Christmas holidays, with consumer spending up 2.7 percent last year although disposable incomes rose by only 1.9 percent – meaning consumers were going into debt even deeper.

The US savings rate has plummeted as consumers have forgotten the lessons of the most recent recession, to 2.9 percent, down from 5.5 percent as late as April 2017, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Next, although the official unemployment rate has fallen to 4.1 percent, US civilian labor force participation has fallen to the lowest point since the 1970s, with the downward trend beginning in 2008 and continuing steadily down without a break. It is now about 60 percent. Some 700,000 people left the labor force in November, a major proportion of them retiring baby boomers.

But automation, in part spurred by rising minimum wages across the US, is taking jobs that will never return. The US labor force is not educated well enough to take jobs requiring the skills automation requires. There are lots of jobs that can’t be automated, from plumbers to carpenters to bricklayers, etc., but educators turned away from vocational training in junior colleges for so-called STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and there are no skilled people to fill these roles.

One out of every 10 young people is homeless in the US a part of every year according to researchers with Chapin Hall, a youth policy center at the University of Chicago. One of every 30 between 13 and 17 are homeless at some point during a year. That is 700,000 adolescents. There are an estimated 20,000 people living in the Los Angeles skid row and some 3.5 million between the age of 18 and 25 experience homelessness during any given year.

A new report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab finds many more community-college students are homeless or lack food than previously reported. Around two-thirds of community college students are “food insecure,” meaning they have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods. Around half of these students are also “housing insecure,” meaning they are forced to move often or cannot afford rent or utilities. Some 14 percent are homeless.

They are also deeply in debt. Americans owe more than US$1.48 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers – US$620 billion more than total US credit card debt. In fact, the average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up 6 percent from 2015.