Americans really are up to their necks in debt, and more people than ever before are sinking even deeper toward financial suffocation and bankruptcy.
Americans owe money to banks, finance companies, credit unions, pension funds, and retailers.They even owe money to future generations by allowing government to run up debts they can never repay and that will be passed on to those not yet born. Sadly, much of the money was for frivolous rather than meaningful items.
Americans owe money personally and institutionally, the former through such means as credit cards and the latter through debts run up by federal, state and local governments, and by companies in which they hold stocks or bonds.
It is a crush of bad loans - to Third World countries, real estate developers and big-time thieves - that underlies the demise of financial institutions, such as commercial banks, savings banks and thrifts.
It is this debt in all its forms that compels those who peek into the economy's future to turn their heads instead. It is what forces economists seeking a way out to give up and hope instead that we can muddle through. Debt is the economy's biggest burden as it tries to ascend from recession.
Home mortgages insured or guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration now total about $60 billion. Commercial bank credit is more than $2.6 trillion.
While much of that debt is very sound, used to finance housing and profitable commercial enterprises, an unknown percentage won't be repaid, and that means everyone will pay - in higher borrowing rates or perhaps in higher taxes or in even more government debt.
There also is more than $700 billion of consumer installment credit on the books, and a good deal of that also won't be repaid.
Professor Robert Johnson, director of Purdue University's credit research center, says the number of people filing for personal bankruptcy in fiscal 1989 was 3.5 times the number recorded a decade ago.
He estimates net bankruptcy losses on consumer installment credit for 1989 were $1.4 billion, with $430 million of it for Visa and MasterCard alone. These amounts, he points out, do not include debts that would have been written off anyway as uncollectable; the amounts reflect bankruptcy losses alone.
Rather than believing Americans simply went mad over the past decade or so, credit analysts try to explain the phenomenon in terms of Americans succumbing to bait. Lenders and regulators lowered lending standards.
Perhaps American adults remember the old standards, those of the 1970s, when borrowers approached lenders as they would a federal judge, knowing they would be grilled about the purpose for which the money was sought.
Under the newer standards, borrowers simply stayed home and waited for the lenders to seek them out. Not only did the lenders find them but they offered a credit card with thousands of dollars in credit.
Something of the sort occurred in commercial banking, with lenders seeking to press money into the hands of real estate developers. In 1984, real estate loans as a percentage of total loans and leases was 25 percent. Recently, the percentage was more than 37 percent. Much of the money won't be recovered, of course.
Lax regulation by federal and state officials receives a great deal of the blame, especially in commercial lending, but Johnson believes there is a more fundamental issue involved in the consumer debt.
It is education, or the lack of it. "Most consumers receive no education in personal financial planning in high school," he says. "We spend far more money teaching them to drive cars that they don't know how to finance."