Condemned To Repetition

George Santayana memorably observed:  “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Hey, does anybody here remember 2008?

isantay001p1A report released yesterday by the Federal Reserve discloses that Americans have just set a new record for accumulated credit card debt.  The grasshoppers among us had saddled themselves with a total of $1.021 trillion in outstanding revolving credit in June, just edging out the previous record of $1.02 trillion set in April 2008.  Total household debt in the U.S., which totes up housing, auto, student loan, and credit card debt, reached a new record of $12.72 trillion in March, which also passes its 2008 peak level.

Of course, those of us who do remember the past recall what happened in and around 2008 — banks failed, the subprime mortgage bubble burst, and the economy was thrown into the Great Recession.  For a while, Americans reacted by tightening their belts, paying down their credit card debt, and getting rid of some credit cards — but those days of responsible consumer behavior apparently are long over.  Recently, credit card debt has been growing at an annual rate of 4.9%, and more consumers are getting access to credit cards.  More than 171 million consumers had access to credit cards in the first quarter of 2017, which is the highest such number since 2005, when about 162.5 million people had access to credit cards.  And some banks have made the conscious decision to provide credit cards to people with subprime credit scores.

Gee, what could go wrong with this scenario?

It’s all not-so-vaguely and scarily familiar, but a lot of people apparently just don’t care.  They think times are good now, and therefore times will always be good — so why not use that credit card to buy another impulse purchase consumer good that they don’t really need?  The problem is that, in our interconnected economy, the irresponsibility of the grasshoppers can pull down the ants among us, too.  If the heavy credit card borrowers start defaulting on their debts en masse, and banks and businesses start feeling the pinch, we’ll feel the unfortunate results, too.

If Santayana were still with us, maybe he’d change his famous statement to read:  “Those of us who remember the past but are unfortunate enough to live with other people who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, whether we want to or not.”

The Impoverished Millennials

For years, Americans have always been fervently optimistic about the financial course of their families.  Parents and grandparents were confident that the generations to come would be wealthier and better educated than they were — and for much of American history their optimism was justified by the reality.

Is that true any longer, with the so-called Millennial Generations, which consists of adults under age 35?  A troubling article in the Wall Street Journal indicates that there are disturbing signs that the Millennials are instead on track for lives of financial difficulty.

The article looks at the savings rates of Americans by generation through an analysis of consumer finances and financial accounts.  It finds that, after a brief blip of increased savings during the Great Recession, Millennials now aren’t saving much of anything.  In fact, their generational savings rate is a negative 2% — which means many of them are burning through the savings they accumulated previously, or spending their inheritances.  They are less likely to have any investments or investment accounts, which means they have no cushion to fall back on if they lose their jobs or hit another financial bump in the road.

In short, forget about saving to make a down payment on a house — these young people are hanging on by their fingernails, hoping to make their credit card and student loan payments, and eating into their seed corn savings in order to do so.

Some of this predicament clearly is the product of bad planning and poor personal financial management.  If you’re barely making your credit card payments, maybe you should skip that expensive “destination” bachelorette party with your college pals.  But some of it is larger forces — like a weak job market, student loan debt that is far greater than that carried by prior generations, and flat wage and salary growth.  The fear is that the Millennials will become trapped and never be able to break out of a cycle of debt that leaves them living hand to mouth for most of their adult lives and limits their abilities to buy homes, start families, and ultimately to retire.

It’s not a pretty picture, and we can only begin to perceive what the ripple effects of an impoverished Millennial generation might be for our country and its economy.  Perhaps we should stop worrying so much about senior citizens and start thinking about how to create more opportunities for the younger people who must carry the country forward.