Comparing Consumer Debt to Federal Debt

May 31, 2013

This week’s Chart of the Week focuses on debt levels of the U.S. consumer and federal government. For consumer debt, all forms of debt other than mortgages are included in the analysis. As of the fourth quarter of 2012, U.S. consumers collectively held debt of $2.8T. Over the 32 year time frame since 1981 (when data was first collected), consumer debt has increased from $378B to $2.8T, a whopping increase of 635%. However, this still constitutes a relatively small percentage of U.S. debt, and has hovered between 5 and 10% over the years.

On the other hand, federal debt has not only been a much higher dollar amount (not surprising), but has also been a much more volatile component of overall U.S. debt. As of the fourth quarter of 2012, the Federal Government’s debt was $11.6T. In the 32 year time frame, Federal debt has increased from $821B to $11.6T, an even larger jump of 1313%. Federal debt has averaged 22% of total U.S. debt ranging from a low of 16% to a high of 29%.

The chart above depicts these four debt data points: households’ consumer credit dollar amount, Federal government’s dollar amount, consumer debt percentage of total U.S. debt, and Federal debt percentage of total U.S. debt. The takeaways are quite evident. The Federal debt has increased significantly since the 3rd quarter of 2008 (onset of the Global Financial Crisis), and appears to be maintaining this trajectory. On the other hand, while consumers’ household debt has increased in absolute terms, there have not been dramatic spikes in the debt level. Additionally, it has maintained its weight in the overall debt picture. Given the disparity in both dollar amount and share of overall debt, the level (and trend) of federal debt will continue to have a much more notable impact on the economy and financial markets than consumer debt.

The opinions expressed herein are those of Marquette Associates, Inc. (“Marquette”), and are subject to change without notice. This material is not financial advice or an offer to purchase or sell any product. Marquette reserves the right to modify its current investment strategies and techniques based on changing market dynamics or client needs.

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