Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Our $58 trillion love affair with debt, in one crazy chart

Those having a hard time finding growth in the U.S. economy are looking in the wrong places.

Forget about real estate, technology or manufacturing: The real American growth industry is debt. While gross domestic product has lingered in the 2 to 2.5 percent growth range for years, the level of debt as measured through credit market instruments has exploded.

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As the nation entered the 1980s, there was comparatively little debt—just about $4.3 trillion. That was only about 1.5 times the size of gross GDP. Then a funny thing happened.

The gap began to widen during the decade, and then became basically parabolic through the '90s and into the early part of the 21st century.

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Though debt took a brief decline in 2009 as the country limped its way out of the financial crisis, it has climbed again and is now, at $58.7 trillion (Tweet this), 3.3 times the size of GDP and about 13 times what it was in 1980, according to data from the Federal Reserve's St. Louis branch. (The total debt measure is not to be confused with the $18.2 trillion national debt, which is 102 percent of GDP and is a subset of the total figure.)

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Of the total debt, nonfinancial debt leads the way at $41.4 trillion, which breaks down as household and nonprofits holding just shy of $13.5 trillion, nonfinancial business debt at $12 trillion and total government debt at $15.9 trillion.

Growth, such as it is, has been present in all debt categories: In the fourth quarter of 2014, when GDP was growing at just a 2.2 percent rate, business debt jumped 7.2 percent, federal government debt surged 5.4 percent and household debt rose 2.7 percent, with overall domestic nonfinancial debt up 4.7.

So while many economists have bemoaned the 0.2 percent GDP growth in the first quarter and the dimming prospects for growth the remainder of the year, the debt engine is keeping things humming along—until, of course, the next crisis comes and we start all over again.

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