Debt and the data.

Andrew Smithers
Financial World, 1st January 2010

"Andrew Smithers has strong grounds for believing that high levels of US business debt pose as big a threat as personal indebtedness."

The level of personal debt in the US is widely recognised as a major problem for the economy. The higher the level of debt reached, relative to GDP, the greater is the risk that an increasing number of people will be unable to repay these debts, so that banks and other lenders will suffer large losses. As a glance at Chart 1 shows, US businesses are equally vulnerable. The latest available data are for 30th June 2009 and, as I illustrate in the chart, household debt was then 91.3% of GDP, having come down slightly from its peak, and business debt was at its peak level of 78.8% of GDP.

In fact the underlying situation is almost certainly much worse, if allowance is made for the growth of off-balance sheet debt. Companies can take debt off their balance sheet in a variety of ways. Among the most common are to lease rather than own equipment or properties. By doing this companies do not have to borrow to finance the acquisition of the assets and, instead of having to pay interest and repay the principal, they contract to make lease or rental payments which can last for many years into the future. The impact of these arrangements is to reduce the apparent, but not the real, leverage of companies. We donít have data on how much debt companies have managed to get off their balance sheet, but we do have data on the growth of financial debt, and this will tend to rise when financial companies own the property or equipment which they lease to non-financial ones.

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Debt and the data.