Wall Street Journal Sounds Fake Alarm Over Mortgage Debt

The Wall Street Journal, in its persistent quest to mislead people about financial statistics, has this to say today:

U.S. Mortgage Debt Hits Record, Eclipsing 2008 Peak

U.S. mortgage debt reached a record in the second quarter, exceeding its 2008 peak as the financial crisis unfolded. Mortgage balances rose by $162 billion in the second quarter to $9.406 trillion, surpassing the high of $9.294 trillion in the third quarter of 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Tuesday….The figures are nominal, meaning they aren’t adjusted for inflation.

Nominal, you say? How about if we go ahead and correct for inflation, just for laughs? In fact, let’s take the advice of Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, who told the Journal, “What’s more interesting is when you look at the service burden, we don’t have more debt.” Here it is:

That sure doesn’t look like a new record, does it? It’s true that much of this decline is due to low interest rates, which can always change. But there’s sure no hint of that on the horizon. The Fed just lowered policy rates and certainly shows no inclination to raise them anytime soon.

The fact that some government agency reports a number that happens to be higher than some previous number is not necessarily a good hook for a story—and it’s definitely not a good reason for a big headline that screams “mortgage debt hits record.” At the absolute least, you need to correct a time series like this for inflation, and at best you need to present it in a way that actually makes sense. Percentage of income is usually the most sensible way to present debt.

But if you did that you wouldn’t have a story. Can’t have that, I guess.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

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ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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