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Friday, September 25, 2009

Saddled with Debt

Ed from Credit Writedowns reminds us that national income alone does not provide a full snapshot on the well being of the economy.

GDP is an inadequate measure for understanding how healthy an economy is. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz brought this issue into the public domain last week when he spoke in Paris, calling the focus on GDP a ‘fetish’ and favoring a broader measure of economic health.

Stiglitz was responding to reporters after a study on alternative measures of economic growth commissioned by French president Nicholas Sarkozy was released. At the time, Bloomberg reported Stiglitz saying:

GDP has increasingly become used as a measure of societal well-being and changes in the structure of the economy and our society have made it increasingly poor one…

So many things that are important to individuals are not included in GDP. There needs to be an array of numbers but we need to understand the role of each number. We may not be able to aggregate everything together.

Stiglitz is talking about the social costs of growth here. Think about pollution, infant mortality rate, healthcare, life expectancy, or rates of obesity to name a few. And his views are echoed in an article which prompted this tirade from me called “Emphasis on Growth Is Called Misguided" by Peter Goodman in [the] New York Times. Read it.

However, in this (go here to read it) post, I want to focus on one narrow issue: debt.

Ignoring the massive spike in government related debt (Federal, State, AND Local) for the time being and focusing instead on household liabilities as a percent of the national income, we see mortgage debt is now at 70% of GDP (more than double the level seen in the 1980's and 50% more than that seen at the beginning of this decade) and consumer debt is now at 18% of GDP.

The importance of all this is of course that all that debt that has been added over the years has been a huge contributor to that GDP. The fear is that the debt has just pulled a lot of consumption forward rather than infrastructure or other long term investments that will provide future growth opportunities.

Source: BEA / Federal Reserve