The Wall Street Journal - U.S. consumers are shedding debt at the fastest rate in more than six decades, largely through a wave of defaults, in a trend that underscores the depth of their financial troubles but could also help clear the way for a stronger economic recovery.
Total U.S. household debt, including mortgages and credit-card balances, fell 1.7% in 2009 to $13.5 trillion, the Federal Reserve reported Thursday—the first annual drop since records began in 1945. The debt amounts to $43,874 per U.S. resident.
The drop reflects the extent to which job losses and a moribund housing market are forcing people to default on mortgages and other obligations, a painful process that has slammed millions of families and hit banks and investors with hundreds of billions of dollars in losses.
At the same time, the defaults are leaving many people with more cash to spend and save, jump-starting the financial rehabilitation, or "deleveraging," that economists see as a crucial prerequisite to robust growth.
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