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What’s really going on with revolving consumer credit?

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Beyond some of the dodgy stuff in the headlines today.

By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.

Revolving credit balances in April, unadjusted for seasonality — so actual dollar balances — were $1.04 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve this afternoon. This includes credit card balances, personal loans, etc., and was up just 2.6% from April 2019.

Let that sink in for a moment: over a three-year period, revolving credit grew by only 2.6%, despite CPI inflation of 13% over those three years. In other words, revolving credit growth fell sharply in inflation-adjusted terms.

The huge dip between 2019 and today stems from the pandemic when consumers used their stimulus money to pay off their credit cards and when they cut spending on discretionary services, such as sporting and entertainment events, international travel or elective healthcare services such as cosmetic surgery. , visits to the dentist, etc. During this period, delinquencies dropped to record lows.

Revolving loan balances are barely above the peaks of 2007 and 2008, despite 14 years of population growth and 40% CPI inflation in those years! In other words, revolving credit just isn’t the kind of problem it was in 2008. It’s a sideshow.

In terms of growth – in terms of additional borrowed money being spent in the economy – it was miniscule. There has actually been no growth since December. And after refunds in January and February, following the annual holiday shopping spree, total balances rose just $14 billion in March and $17 billion in April, for a total of 31 billions of dollars.

That $31 billion growth in March and April didn’t even offset the $32 billion in refunds in January and February. These are actual dollars, not seasonally adjusted notional dollars.

In terms of adding to the growth of the economy: total consumer spending is currently growing at an annual rate of $17 trillion, with a T. So what would be the additional spending growth resulting from the increase in revolving credit? It was a rhetorical question. It’s tiny.

Since 2019, consumer spending has increased by 19% and revolving credit has only increased by 2.9%, both non-inflation-adjusted by 13% over the period. In other words, revolving credit growth has been significantly below inflation and massively below consumer spending growth.

This shows that consumers rely less on revolving credit.

Credit cards and some types of personal loans, such as payday loans, are the most expensive forms of credit, and they often come with usurious interest rates. Credit card rates can exceed 30%. And the Americans have understood this. If they need to finance purchases, many consumers resort to cheaper loans, including cash refinancing of their mortgages.

And a lot of consumers are using their credit cards as payment methods, and they’re paying them back every month. This is what these relatively low balances show.

The beautiful seasonal adjustments.

Seasonal adjustments to the real dollar revolving loan balances are designed to correspond to the peak month of each year, which is December. In other words, there is no seasonal adjustment for December, but the other 11 months are always adjusted upwards, like every month was December at the height of the holiday shopping frenzy. And that creates the bizarre pattern where, for 11 months of the year, seasonal adjustments grossly overestimate the actual revolving credit balances.

In this graph, the green line represents the seasonally adjusted balances. Note how it overlaps every December. The red line represents actual balances, not seasonally adjusted. And note the crazy disconnect between the two lines over the past four months:

The consumer credit data the Federal Reserve released today was its limited monthly set, just two incomplete summary categories of a complex phenomenon: “revolving credit,” which I discussed above, and “non-revolving credit”, which is made up of car loans and student loans combined, but not separated, and does not include mortgages, HELOCs and other debts.

Individual car loan, student loan, mortgage and HELOC categories are only published quarterly by the New York Fed, and I’ve discussed that for the first quarter, covering all categories, including mortgages and HELOCs, and delinquency rates for each category, as well as collections, foreclosures, and third-party bankruptcies, as part of my quarterly review of consumer credit in America.

This quarterly data shows credit card balances by themselves, as well as other revolving consumer loans:

  • Credit card balances, at $840 billion in Q1, are back to where they were in Q1 2008 and lower in Q1 2020 and Q1 2019 (red line).
  • Other consumer loans (personal loans, personal loans, etc.), at $450 billion, were below levels well before the financial crisis (green line):

In other words, revolving consumer credit was roughly flat 13 years ago, despite 13 years of population growth and 40% inflation. In real and per capita terms, it has become a sideshow.

Of course, some people are in over their heads and they will fall behind. It always happens. But in the overall spectrum of credit risk, that’s not a big deal anymore. Consumers have become much smarter since the financial crisis. They borrow through much cheaper mortgages and car loans, and proportionally much less at those rip-off rates that come with credit cards and personal loans.

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