Farrell: Looking At Debt-It's A Lot Of Money

Household debt is "down" to 130% of disposable income. "Down" is a relative term. It was 134% recently. But it was half the current level as recently as the mid-1980's. Total debt in the U.S. (all debt including the government) stands at about 360% of Gross Domestic Product. It was 155% in 1980.

Another way to slice the debt overview is to look at non-financial debt (take the banks' debt, etc. out) and that is 240% of GDP. The Euro zone is also at about that level and Japan is at something like 450% of GDP. But that economy has been down for a long time, so I take no comfort we are better off than that.

Let's look at household debt for a moment. Disposable personal income is close enough to $11 trillion that we can use that as a number. If household debt were to retreat to, say, 100% of income, it would be a retrenchment of a good bit over $3 trillion. That would be one big bite out of consumer expenditures. I have no idea where this debt to income will or should go.

Things tend to revert to the norm over time, and if we were in the 70% range in the 1980's, I don't think returning to 100% is a crazy view. If the savings rate were to return to its 70-year average of 9%, that would chip in almost $1 trillion a year. Savings might not go to pay off debt, but, from a total balance sheet overview, we could balance one against the other.

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If all else stayed equal (which of course it won't), it would take several years to get back to 100%. Not a joyful prospect for a booming economy led by the consumer, but I don't think any of us believe the consumer is going to be a driving force in any recovery.

What might be a driving force would be inventory restocking. I mentioned yesterday that Industrial Production was down again, which means there is no inventory build at all, and inventory liquidation instead. If final demand started to pick up, there would be a need to increase production quickly.

New York City has balanced its budget with the aid of Federal stimulus dollars. But the smoke and mirrors employed also revealed a rise in the sales tax and a reduction in the work force. How does the use of stimulus dollars in this sense stimulate? Taxes are up and employment down. I don't get it.

Only about $50 billion or so of the total stimulus package of $787 billion has been spent, and there is a lot of enthusiasm that, when the rest gets spent, the economy will prosper. But if it non-stimulates like this, we are in for a reassessment.

My partner, Greg Valliere, in a short piece I would recommend to you, notes that Congressman Charlie Rangel has proposed a surcharge on rich people to help pay for the healthcare package. You knew that was coming to protect the President's campaign pledge to not raise middle-class taxes.

I would note that in the 1930's the economy (and the market) recovered significantly from 1933 to 1937. In 1937 we raised interest rates and, as important, raised the marginal tax rate to 90%! The call for a rise in the Fed Funds rate and a move to tax those evil rich folk has an uncomfortable historical ring to it.

Wednesday's market went below the 200-day moving average at 908 and predictably fought to stay above it. I am guessing that there will be some resistance at this level, but the weight of the evidence lends itself to a continued correction.