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.”

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Here We Go Again

You’d think that, after the crash of the housing market, the failure of banks, the stock market plunge, and the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that still is affecting the economy in many parts of the country, modern Americans would have learned a painful but lasting lesson about taking on too much debt.

It looks like you’d be wrong.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on household debt says that Americans are collectively approaching the record level of debt that we had accumulated in 2008, and probably will break through that record this year.  According to the report, by the end of 2016 our collective household debt, which includes everything from mortgages to credit cards to student loans to car loans, had risen to $12.58 trillion, which is just below the 2008 record of $12.68 trillion.  Even worse, last year our debt load increased by a whopping $460 billion, which is the largest increase in a decade.  Mortgage loan balances are now $8.48 trillion, which accounts for about 67 percent of the total debt load.  And the total amount of debt increased in every category being measured.

The experts say there’s reason to think that 2017 is different, because there are fewer delinquencies being reported now — about half as many as was the case in 2008 — and fewer consumer bankruptcies, too.  Who knows?  Maybe the banks that are extending all of that credit are a lot more judicious in their loan decisions than they were in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and maybe Americans have become much more capable of juggling enormous amounts of personal debt.

And maybe we’ll all live happily ever after in the Land of Narn.

It’s a good illustration of how people have changed.  Anyone who lived through the Great Depression was permanently scarred by the experience; they became forever frugal, suspicious of any kind of debt, and relentlessly focused on building up their savings and paying off that mortgage so they and their friends could hold a “burn the mortgage” party.  The lessons they learned during the Great Depression were still motivating their decisions decades later.

The “Great Recession” clearly hasn’t had the same kind of lasting impact.  It seems that modern Americans just never learn.