Consumer Debt Likely to Become a Negative for Economy

Economists Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari argue that much of the growth in the US over the past 25 years has been fueled by consumer debt. Their research indicates that the consumers will cut spending as a result of the housing recession, which they believe will trigger the worst contraction since the 1980s, and possibly since the Great Depression.

From an article about Cynamon’s and Fazzari’s findings (hat tip

…..just wait until debt problems spill over onto household spending. According to economists Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari, America’s love affair with consumption has been a big source of economic stimulus for a long time….

“For the past 25 years, America has experienced a period of rising consumer debt,” said Fazzari, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “Up to now the high debt levels have had a positive influence on the economy. In fact, it was a stimulus to economic growth. But now it’s likely to become a source of economic contraction…..

“Many people think that trouble in the housing market won’t have that big of an impact on the overall economy because construction accounts for only 5 percent of the economy. They predict a soft landing from the current troubles,” Fazzari said. “Our research suggests that we’re facing a much more serious problem due to our consumption habits, that could have a much bigger impact.”….

Fazzari along with Cynamon, a WUSTL graduate who is now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, studied the impact American consumers have had on the economy over the past 25 years, as well as the impetus behind the people’s spending and borrowing habits. Their analysis leads them to conclude that various factors are responsible for the increase in consumer debt during the latter half of the 20th century.

“We are social animals who learn behaviors from those around us, both ‘real’ people and the characters we identify with in the media. The media, as well as friends, family and co-workers, have a big influence on people’s willingness to buy more,” Fazzari said. “The message we all hear is that it’s OK to spend more money, it’s patriotic to buy more and that it’s perfectly normal to take on debt to do so.”

Combine that pressure with a loosening of institutional constraints to accessing credit, and you wind up with the current situation. The risk comes into play because with so much debt, the source of financial instability is now in the consumer sector.

“We’re already seeing what happens to the markets from a weakened mortgage market. Many people who received loans who would not have qualified with previous credit standards are now unable to afford those loans as ‘teaser rates’ expire interest rates go up,” Fazzari said. “What will people do when offers for new credit cards don’t show up in the mail three times a week? People won’t be able to simply pay off old loans with new lines of credit. They’ll be forced to service their debt, if they can.”

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  1. mbartv

    The re-iteration that construction constitutes 5% of the economy (from GDP statistics) understates the much greater employment and multiplier effects when you consider the real estate industry as a whole (including re-sales, mortgages, furniture, legal etc.) In Florida and California particularly real estate is the dominant industry, and its extremely significant in other markets as well.

  2. Anonymous

    i second mbartv,

    also there are thousands of academic research on how consumer behavior (confidence) affects the overall economy, both qualitative and quantitative. Their work contributes nothing new to the finance field. I love your blog however putting this cr*p as if it’s stg new and as if they catched a different angle is just ridiculous.

    Your dedicated reader

  3. Yves Smith


    I probably didn’t frame this post properly. What I found somewhat novel about this research is that it claimss a 25 year link between the growth in consumer debt and overall GDP expansion. I don’t know of many studies that assert that consumer debt has played such a long-standing role in growth.

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