Mourir de consommation

[NYTimes] IT’S game over for the American consumer. Inflation-adjusted personal consumption expenditures are on track for rare back-to-back quarterly declines in the second half of 2008 at a 3.5 percent average annual rate. There are only four other instances since 1950 when real consumer demand has fallen for two quarters in a row. This is the first occasion when declines in both quarters will have exceeded 3 percent. The current consumption plunge is without precedent in the modern era.

Worse, millions of homeowners used their residences as collateral to take out home equity loans. According to Federal Reserve calculations, net equity extractions from United States homes rose from about 3 percent of disposable personal income in 2000 to nearly 9 percent in 2006. This newfound source of purchasing power was a key prop to the American consumption binge.

As a result, household debt hit a record 133 percent of disposable personal income by the end of 2007 — an enormous leap from average debt loads of 90 percent just a decade earlier.

[CBS] “The foreclosure crisis began mostly as a problem for lower income households,” says Mark Zandi of Moody’s. “It is now a problem for all households: low, middle income and even higher income households.”

More than 2 million prime mortgages, traditional loans for people with good credit, are now delinquent. That’s 624,000 more than this time last year, according to the mortgage bankers foundation, Tracy reports.

“We didn’t necessarily expect the distress levels that we are seeing at this point,” says economist Mark Fleming.

It used to be if you couldn’t afford your mortgage you could always try to refinance or sell your home and pay off your loan. But these days, for a lot of people, those options no longer exist.

That’s because 12 million households now owe more than their homes are worth, according to Moody’s.

Homeowners with risky adjustable rate mortgages are getting help from banks, but there are no programs to aid those who already have good loans but no jobs.

“I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it,” says Terri Osier, a struggling homeowner.

Meanwhile, Judy Jones is hoping her bank will lower her payments until she finds work.

“If they don’t, I’m not going to drain my savings, I am not going to drain my 401k, I am going to walk away,” Jones says.

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