Category Archives: US debt

21/1/18: FT Warns on Credit Cards Delinquencies: High or Hype?

The FT are reporting a 20% rise in credit cards delinquencies across major U.S. banks in 2016, compared to 2017 (see here: Which sounds bad. Although, of course, neither new nor completely up-to-date. That is because the NY Fed give us the same figures (for all U.S. households) through 3Q 2017.

So here is the analysis of the Fed figures:
Despite these worrying dynamics, the levels of delinquencies are still low. In 2007-2008, credit card delinquencies rates were around 9.34% and 10.84%, respectively. In 2006, these were 8.54%. In fact, current running average for 1Q-03Q 2017 is 6.14% or lower than for any year between 2003 and 2012. 

As the chart below shows, the real crisis is currently unfolding not in the credit cards debt, but in Student Loans with 10.05% average delinquency rate for 2017 so far. Credit crds delinquencies are only fourth in terms of severity. 

In terms of total volumes of debt in delinquency, 3Q 2017 data shows credit cards with USD12.3 billion, against mortgages at USD88.56 billion, student loans at USD 30.16 billion and auto loans at USD 17.05 billion. 

Even in terms of transition from shorter-term delinquency (30 days-89 days) to longer-term delinquency (90days and over), credit cards are not as prominent of a problem as student loans:

In summary, thus, the real crisis in the U.S. household debt is not (yet) in credit cards or revolving loans, and not even (yet) in mortgages. It is in student debt, followed by auto loans.

10/6/17: Cart & Rails of the U.S. Monetary Policy

So, folks, what’s wrong with this picture, eh?

Let’s start thinking. The U.S. Treasury yields are underlying the global measure of inflation since the onset of the global ‘fake recovery’. Both have been and are still trending to the downside. Sounds plausible for a ‘hedge’ asset against global economic stagnation. And the U.S. Treasuries can be thought of as such, given the U.S. economy’s lead-timing for the global economy. Except for a couple of things:
  1. U.S. Treasury is literally running out of money (by August, it will need to issue new paper to cover arising obligations and there is a pesky problem of debt ceiling looming again);
  2. U.S. Fed is signalling two (or possibly three) hikes over the next 6 months and (even more importantly) no willingness to restart buying Treasuries again;
  3. U.S. political risks are rising, not abating, and (equally important) these risks are now evolving faster than global geopolitical risks (the hedge’ is becoming less ‘safe’ than the risks it is supposed to hedge);
  4. U.S. Fed is staring at the prospect of potential increase in decisions uncertainty as it is about to start welcoming new members ho will be replacing the tried-and-trusted QE-philes;
  5. Meanwhile, the gap between the Fed policy’s long term objectives and the reality on the ground is growing: private debt is rising, financial assets valuations are spinning out of control and 

So as the U.S. 10-year paper is nearing yields of 2%, and as the premium on Treasuries relative to global inflation is widening once again, the U.S. Fed is facing a growing problem: tightening rates is necessary to restore U.S. dollar (and U.S. Treasuries) credibility as a global risk hedge (the key reason anyone wants to hold these assets), but raising rates is likely to take the wind out of the sails of the financial markets and the real economy. Absent that wind, the entire scheme of debt-fuelled growth and recovery is likely to collapse. 

Cart is flying one way. Rails are pointing the other. And no one is calling it a crash… yet…

22/5/17: U.S. Public Pensions System: Insolvent to the Core

A truly worrying view of the U.S. public sector pensions deficits has been revealed in a new study by Joshua D. Raugh for Hoover Institution. Titled “Hidden Debt, Hidden Deficits” (see the study opens up with a dire warning we all have been aware of for some years now (emphasis is mine):  “Most state and local governments in the United States offer retirement benefits to their employees in the form of guaranteed pensions. To fund these promises, the governments contribute taxpayer money to public systems. Even under states’ own disclosures and optimistic assumptions about future investment returns, assets in the pension systems will be insufficient to pay for the pensions of current public employees and retirees. Taxpayer resources will eventually have to make up the difference.”

Some details: “most public pension systems across the United States still calculate both their pension costs and liabilities under the assumption that their contributed assets will achieve returns of 7.5–8 percent per year. This practice obscures the true extent of public sector liabilities.” In other words, public pension funds produce outright lies when it comes to the investment returns they promise to generate. This, in turn, generates delayed liabilities that are carried into the future, when realised returns come in at some 3-4 percent per annum, instead of promised 7.5-8 percent.

How big is the hole? “In aggregate, the 564 state and local systems in the United States covered in this study reported $1.191 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities (net pension liabilities) under GASB 67 in FY 2014. This reflects total pension liabilities of $4.798 trillion and total pension assets (or fiduciary net position) of $3.607 trillion.” This accounts for roughly 97% of all public pension funds in the U.S. Taking into the account the pension funds’ penchant for manipulating (in their favor) the discount rates, the unfunded public sector pensions liabilities rise to $4.738 trillion.

“What is in fact going on is that the governments are borrowing from workers and promising to repay that debt when they retire. The accounting standards allow the bulk of this debt to go unreported due to the assumption of high rates of return.”

Actually, what is really going on is that the governments create a binding contract with their employees to loot - at some point in the future - the general taxation funds to cover the shortfalls on these contracts. How much looting is on the pensions liabilities? Take the unfunded liability estimate of $4.738 trillion. And consider that in 2014, total revenues collected by state and local governments stood at $1.487 trillion. Pensions deficits alone amount to 3.2 times the underwriters’ income. In household comparative terms, this is like having a full 100% mortgage on a second home, while still running a full 100% mortgage on primary residence (day-to-day expenses).

Or, put more cogently, the entire system is insolvent. And is getting more insolvent, the longer the local and state governments refuse to use more honest accounting models.

Couple of charts to illustrate

CHART 2: State Contributions: Actual vs Required to Prevent Rise in Unfunded Liability

Now, observe in the above: the distance between the green triangle (required contributions) and the blue dot (actual contributions) is the gap in public pensions funding that has to be extracted to make the contracts whole. This will either have to come from tax hikes or from increased contributions from the public sector workers or from cut in future benefits to these workers. Or from all three.

In a range of the states, e.g. California, New Jersey, Illinois, etc we are already facing draconian levels of taxation, and falling real incomes of private sector workers. In a range of other states, municipal and local taxes are high, while the cost of living increases are swallowing income growth. In other words, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell these gaps can be funded from general taxation in the future.

When all ameliorating assumptions are made (to the upside for public pensions schemes), Raugh concludes that “despite markets that performed well during 2009–2014, state and local government pension systems are still underwater by $3.4 trillion. With relatively poor performance in fiscal years 2015 and the first part of 2016, this figure is likely to be even larger today. Finally, the report reveals the extent to which state and local governments are in fact not running balanced budgets. While they contribute 7.3 percent of their own-generated revenue to pensions, the true annual ex ante, accrual-basis cost of keeping pension liabilities from rising is 17.5 percent of state and local budgets. Even contributions of this magnitude would not begin to pay down the trillions of dollars of unfunded legacy liabilities.”

Yes, the entire system of public pensions is insolvent. No surprise there. And there is not enough fiscal space to recover from that insolvency without cutting benefits, raising taxes and hiking employee contributions. No surprise there either. Finally, although Raugh does not say so himself, it is pretty clear that there is zero will on either side of the Washington’s political divide to do anything tangible to address the problem.

Note: you can read a series of previous posts covering various sides of household debt in the following threads: Total Household Debt; U.S. Social Security Insolvency, and Student Loans Explosion

19/5/17: A Reminder: Social Security is Only Getting More Insolvent…

On foot of my earlier post on U.S. household debt, it is worth mentioning another, much-overlooked in the media, fact concerning U.S. real economic debt crisis. This fact is a staggering one, even though it has been published a year ago, back in April 2016.

Based on the 2016 OASDI Trustees Report, officially called "The 2016 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds" (see link here:
  • U.S. Social Security's total income will exceed total cost of Social Security payouts through 2019. However, beyond 2019, interest income and money taken out of reserves will have to cover the funds required to offset Social Security's annual deficits until 2034.
  • Assuming the U.S. Presidential Administrations and the Congress continue business as usual approach to Social Security, the federal government payroll taxes will only be able to cover roughly 75% of scheduled retirement benefits until 2090
  • As the result, the Social Security Administration now projects that unfunded obligations will reach USD 11.4 trillion by 2090 or some $700 billion higher than the USD 10.7 trillion shortfall projected a year ago
  • Worse:  on an "infinite horizon" basis (netting Social Security expected future liabilities from forecast revenues) Social Security will face a USD 32.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities by 2090, or staggering USD 6.3 trillion more than 2015 projection
Chart below plots forecast Social Security unfunded liabilities corresponding to each forecast year:

The above clearly shows that the Social Security 'stabilisation' achieved in 2014-2015 is now not only erased, but is set back to what appears to be a rapid acceleration in liabilities back to 2008-2014 trend.

Yes, Social Security is a system in which people pay in taxes for an 'allegedly' ringfenced program that is supposed to supplement retirement. No, Social Security is not a program that is actually contractually ringfenced to provide anything whatsoever to those who pay into it. Which, really, means that the default on Social Security is looming large for the millennials and subsequent generations. And this raises the issue of what will happen to pensions provision across the entire U.S. Currently, even public sector pensions (across states and municipalities) are facing severe uncertainty and, in an increasing number of cases, actual cuts. Which raises public reliance on Social Security just at the time that the Social Security system is facing higher threats of insolvency. 

Meanwhile, household debt situation is getting from bad to awful (see this post: 

The status quo is a prescription for a social, economic and political disaster. No medals for guessing what the Congress is doing about it all.

19/5/17: U.S. Household Debt: Things are Much Worse Than Headlines Suggest

Those of you who follow this blog know that I am a severe/extreme contrarian when it comes to median investor perceptions of the severity of leverage risks. That is to say, mildly, that I do not like extremely high levels of debt exposures at the macroeconomic level (aggregate real economic debt, which includes non-financial corporations debt, household debt and government debt), at the financial system levels (banking debt), at the microeconomic (firm) level, and at the level of individual investors own exposure to leverage.

With this in mind, let me bring to you the latest fact about debt, the fact that rings multiple bells for me. According to the data from the U.S. Federal Reserve, household debt in the U.S. has, as of the end of 1Q 2017, exceeded pre-2008 peak levels and hit an all-time high by the end of March.

Let's crunch some numbers.

  • Total Household Debt in the U.S. stood at USD 12.725 trillion at the end of 1Q 2017, up on USD 12.576 trillion in 4Q 2016. Previous record, reached in 3Q 2008 was USD 12.675, while the pre-Global Financial Crisis average was USD 10.112 trillion.
  • During pre-crisis period, Mortgage Debt peaked at USD 9.294 trillion in 3Q 2008. In 1Q 2017 this figure remained below this peak levels at USD 8.627 trillion. As flimsy as house price valuations can be, this means that there is no 'hard' asset underlying the new debt peak. If anything, the new overall household debt mountain is written against something far less tangible than real estate.
  • Student loans are up on previous peak (4Q 2016 at USD 1.310 trillion) at USD 1.344 trillion, as consistent with continued growth in the student loans crisis in the U.S.
Chart below illustrates the trends for total household debt:

Another key trend in household debt relates to debt defaults and risks. Here too 1Q 2017 data is far from encouraging. Pre-Global Financial Crisis average delinquencies (120 days or more overdue loans and Severely Derogatory delinquencies) average 2.07 percent of total debt outstanding. In 1Q 2017, some 29 quarters of deleveraging later, the comparable percentage is 3.0 percent. This is bad. Worse, take together, all household debt that was in delinquency in 1Q 2017 was 4.8 percent, which is still above 4.56 percent average for pre-2008 period. 

While overall delinquencies are not quite at problematic levels, yet, we must keep in mind the underlying conditions in which these delinquencies are taking place. Prior to the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, interest rates environment was much less benign than it is today toward higher levels of debt exposures: debt origination costs (direct cash costs) and debt servicing costs (income charge from debt) were both higher back in the days of the pre-2008 boom. Today, both of these costs are lower. Which should have led to lower delinquencies. The fact that delinquencies still run above pre-2008 levels implies that we are witnessing poorer underlying household fundamentals against which the debt is written.

Sadly, you won;t read this view of the current debt and debt burden issues from the mainstream media and analysts.