NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Alan Greenspan believes household balance sheets are cleaner after a long economic slowdown, promising stronger consumer spending in the near future. But other economists worry those sheets might need another run through the wash.
"The prospects for a resumption of strong economic growth have been enhanced by steps taken in the private sector over the past couple of years to restructure and strengthen balance sheets," the Federal Reserve chairman said in his recent testimony to Congress. "Nowhere has this process of balance sheet adjustment been more evident than in the household sector."
The central bank chairman noted that a red-hot housing market had made homeowners wealthier by driving up home prices, and recent gains in stock markets had also fattened the asset side of household ledgers.
More importantly, super-low interest rates have fueled a wave of debt refinancing, which has helped keep consumers' monthly debt payments under control.
As a result, the household "debt-service burden" -- the percentage of consumers' monthly income spent on paying debt -- has stabilized at about 14 percent, where it has been since 2001, after climbing steadily through the late 1990s.
Keeping consumers' debt payments under control is a boon to the economy -- it gives consumers more money to spend, and consumer spending fuels more than two-thirds of the total economy.
"These changes, assisted by improved prices in asset markets, have left households and businesses better positioned than they were earlier to boost outlays as their wariness about the economic environment abates," Greenspan said.
Still, many economists worry Greenspan is painting too rosy a picture of consumer balance sheets -- and, by several measures, they seem to have a point.
Still not saving
For one thing, according to research by Merrill Lynch chief U.S. economist David Rosenberg, the debt-service burden before the past two consumer spending booms was closer to 12 percent -- its current level of 14 percent may be too high to spark much of a rush to the malls.
What's more, Rosenberg pointed out, the household savings rate was 7.7 percent in the last month of the 1990-91 recession, compared with just 3.5 percent now.
Other markers showing we're still too far underwater, according to Rosenberg, include the debt-to-capital ratio for non-financial businesses and the ratio of household debt to after-tax income -- both of which are higher now than before the recession.
"As a nation, we have come out of the recession overspent as opposed to underspent," Rosenberg said in a research note Monday, adding higher federal budget and trade deficits to the picture of a nation that's another year older and deeper in debt.
Personal bankruptcies to set new record
According to research by Northern Trust economist Paul Kasriel, in every recession since World War II the ratio of household debt to assets has fallen. In the most recent recession, however, the debt/asset ratio skyrocketed, setting a record high of more than 18 percent in the first quarter of this year.
Kasriel also undercut the good news of the housing boom, pointing out that, even as homes have gotten more valuable, homeowners are giving more and more of the pie to mortgage lenders -- the ratio of homeowners' equity to total home value dropped in the first quarter to its lowest level since World War II, according to the latest Fed data.
"Households have not meaningfully repaired their balance sheets since the onset of the last recession," Kasriel wrote in a recent research note. "Households are not 'better positioned' than they were earlier to boost outlays as their wariness about the economic environment abates. If anything, they are more poorly positioned to do so."
In most recessions, the rate of household bankruptcy filings actually fall, since most people stop spending and tighten their belts. In the most recent recession, however, bankruptcy filings continued to surge, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute, setting new records in 2001 and 2002.
This year also likely will be a record year, according to ABI executive director Samuel Gerdano.
"Bankruptcy filings went down in 1993 and 1994, in the wake of people shutting down their spending in 1991," Gerdano said. "It takes that kind of slowdown in consumer spending to have that result. [In that regard, the latest] recession was barely a recession -- it technically was a recession, but not enough of one to have a sustained drop in bankruptcy filings."
Gerdano pointed out that, since higher bankruptcy filings are the hallmark of consumers' willingness to spend and take risks, the Fed is likely willing to accept them as part of the price of a healthier economy.
But the steady rise of bankruptcies also means that, since consumers never really stopped borrowing and spending, they don't have the kind of pent-up demand that usually leads to post-recession surges in spending and economic growth.
And some economists worry that a continuation of the recent surge in interest rates -- the yield on the 10-year Treasury note, an important factor in 30-year mortgage rates, has jumped more than a full percentage point in the past six weeks -- could smother an economy that relies too much on deficit spending.
"For an economy addicted to credit ... periodic interest rate spasms of the likes we are seeing today could easily derail the nascent turnaround from the 'growth recession' of the past nine months," Merrill Lynch's Rosenberg said.