Mortgage Milestone

By: Dr. M. Ray Perryman
Published in syndication August 14, 2019

After more than a decade, the amount of household debt (including mortgages) has surpassed pre-Great Recession levels. Sometimes, an upswing in debt of certain types can be a negative signal, such as rising credit card debt in an economic downturn as people try to deal with financial setbacks such as job losses. However, rising debt can also reflect economic strength as increasing numbers of households are willing and able to purchase big-ticket items such as homes and cars.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Center for Microeconomic Data analyzes data provided by Equifax. The latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit reveals that total household debt increased in the second quarter by $192 billion (1.4%) to $13.86 trillion. The increase is the 20th consecutive uptick. The total is $1.2 trillion higher than the previous peak of $12.68 trillion back in the third quarter of 2008. Although not inflation adjusted, it's still a significant milestone.

Mortgage balances are the largest component of household debt by far. They rose by $162 billion in the second quarter of 2019 to reach $9.4 trillion, higher than the previous record level of $9.3 trillion from the third quarter of 2008. (Note that these mortgage balances do not include home equity lines of credit, which have been falling for a while now.) Auto loan balances were up $17 billion and credit card balances increased by $20 billion, while student loan balances declined by $8 billion.

Another sign of health in housing is that foreclosures remain low. ATTOM Data Solutions tracks US foreclosures. The firm's latest Foreclosure Market Report, which includes default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions indicated such actions were reported on 676,535 US properties in 2017, down 27% from 2016. It's the lowest level since 2005 and is a whopping 76% lower than the peak of nearly 2.9 million in 2010 during the worst of the downturn.

In many markets, supplies of houses for sale are fairly tight and prices are generally rising, which would tend to increase the size of individual mortgages. Consumer confidence remains high, increasing the likelihood that people will be in the market for homes. With ongoing health in the job market, I think we can expect the trend of rising debt to continue for now.

After more than a decade, the housing market has finally worked through the major problems of the Great Recession. People are more ready, willing, and able to take on mortgages, and we've finally passed a significant milestone. This time around, however, lending practices are more stringent and markets and home prices are less overinflated. The current debt is far more healthy and sustainable, particularly if the economy remains strong.