Following on from our annual update on the wealth (re)distribution of nations, we thought it important to look at the other side of the household balance sheet – that of ‘debt’ to see just how much ‘progress’ has been made in the world. In the aftermath of the credit crisis (and the ongoing crisis in Europe), government debt levels continue to rise but combining trends in household debt highlights countries that have sustainable (and unsustainable) overall debt levels – and thus the greatest sovereign debt problems. Whether the ‘number’ is from Reinhart & Rogoff or not, the reality is that moar debt is not better and the nations with the highest debt-per-capita may surprise many. Critically, despite the rise in ‘wealth’ from 2000-2008, the ratio of debt-to-net-worth rose on average by about 50% (and in many nations continues to rise).
With the regular occurrence of sovereign debt crises, relatively little attention has been given to the parallel issue of personal debt. Yet household debt has transformed over the past 30 years from low level borrowing mostly securitized on housing assets into wholesale credit seemingly available to anyone for any purpose.
As a consequence, household debt as a proportion of income has doubled almost everywhere, and has on occasion exploded by a factor of ten or more.
Our analysis of household debt highlights a number of facts that may come as a surprise. For example:
- Canada now has the highest debt to income ratio among G7 countries, and Italy has the lowest.
- The countries with the highest levels of household debt per adult – Denmark, Norway and Switzerland – are among the wealthiest and most successful;
- Debt has risen significantly in developed countries over the past decade, but it is nowhere near the scale of the developing world, where almost every country has surpassed the global average of 45% growth during 2000–12.
- While a high ratio of debt to net worth does not itself signify a problem for a country, it does appear to send a warning signal when combined with rapid growth in household debt. Greece, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates fall within this category and all have had problems with debt in recent years. These problems were not directly related to household debt, but rapid growth in personal debt in a highly indebted country is perhaps indicative of a relaxed credit environment that may have wider implications.
- Contagion in the Eurozone links Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain with the problems in Greece. Our estimates of household assets and debts suggest that Greece is an outlier among Eurozone countries, and that the other countries are better placed to absorb the rise in government debt. However, the deterioration in Ireland’s position since 2008 remains a source of serious concern. Beyond the Eurozone, Hungary and Romania are the countries that need to be most carefully monitored.
Via Credit Suisse:
Rising household debt has been one of the most enduring and widespread economic trends of the past 30 years. Evidence for G7 countries suggests that this phenomenon began around 1975. Before this date, the ratio of household debt to annual disposable income within countries remained fairly stable over time and rarely rose above 75%. By the year 2000, household debt in Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA was equivalent to at least 12 months’ income, and in Japan it equated to 15 months’ income (see Figure 1 below). Household debt in France and Italy started from a much lower base, but the gap narrowed considerably between 1980 and 2000, with the debt to income ratio approximately doubling in France and rising even faster in Italy. In most G7 countries, these trends continued until the financial crisis, and then moderated or reversed.