The United States' lengthy economic recovery and low unemployment rate seem to be promising signs, but cracks in the foundation reveal some concerns for the future.
While the official unemployment rate has hit a 16-year low, at 4.3 percent, the "U-6" underemployment rate, which includes those who would like to work full time but have been forced to take part-time jobs, remains stubbornly high at 8.6 percent.
In addition, Americans continue to be plagued by stagnant wages, the rising cost of living, ever-higher taxes (especially here in California) and mounting debt. In fact, household debt has reached a new record, surpassing the levels achieved during the Great Recession, according to the latest Federal Reserve Bank of New York quarterly report. Total household debt now stands at $12.8 trillion, up $552 billion from a year ago, with significant increases in student loan and auto loan debt.
The news is not quite as dire as it appears at first blush, however, since the figures do not account for population and economic growth since the recession.
"Total debt was 67 percent of the nominal gross domestic product in the second quarter, down from as high as 87 percent in 2009," The Wall Street Journal reported.
Then again, we are well into a rather long, albeit mild, recovery — not in the depths of a severe recession. We would much rather be in a position of greater financial strength before the next economic downturn inevitably hits.
Since the recession, student loan debt, which now tops $1.3 trillion, has been second only to mortgage debt (currently $8.7 trillion). Auto loan debt ($1.2 trillion) has also surpassed credit card debt ($1 trillion) during this time, though credit card debt has set a new record as well, surpassing the previous mark from April 2008. Moreover, the portion of credit card balances delinquent after 30 days jumped to 6.2 percent from 5.1 percent during the same period last year.
"This record should serve as a wake-up call to Americans to focus on their credit card debt," CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz told MarketWatch. "Even if you feel your debt is manageable right now, know that you could be one unexpected emergency away from real trouble."
This is a particular concern given that 78 percent of U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck, up from 75 percent last year, according to a recent CareerBuilder study. That includes nearly 10 percent of those earning at least $100,000 a year.
"Living paycheck to paycheck is the new way of life for U.S. workers," CareerBuilder spokesman Mike Erwin told CBS News. "It's not just one salary range. It's pretty much across the board, and it's trending in the wrong direction."
Moreover, just 46 percent said their debt was manageable, and 56 percent felt that they would always be in debt.
And, as a separate MarketWatch article noted, millennials are even resorting to financing to pay for discretionary purchases like luxury sheets, Peloton exercise bikes, fancy blenders, guitars and music festival tickets.
The housing industry is certainly not out of the woods either. A Federal Housing Finance Agency stress test of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac found that the government-sponsored enterprises, which were completely taken over by the federal government during the last recession, could require up to a $100 billion taxpayer bailout in the event of another such "severely adverse scenario."
So while the economic skies may appear clear in the immediate vicinity, storm clouds are starting to loom. Americans should watch their pocketbooks and do what they can to plan accordingly. Our governments should likewise plan their budgets appropriately and refrain from adding to citizens' already substantial burdens.
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