Aug 22, 2008

Bankruptcy & the Credit Bubble: Numbers to Watch & Where to Find Them

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The credit bubble is leaking furiously, as shown by skyrocketing foreclosure rates, but it hasn't popped yet. People keep borrowing more, and if they can't borrow on their home equity, they just run up the debt on their credit cards. And if people can't afford to pay their mortgage loans, you can bet they won't be able to pay down their credit cards, which generally have far steeper interest rates and penalties.

To borrow from Winston Churchill, it appears that foreclosures were not the beginning of the end of the credit crisis, but merely the end of the beginning.

Trends in earning, spending, and saving have pointed to a credit crisis for years. It may not end until an unprecedented wave of consumer and small business bankruptcies wipe away the debt that just can't be repaid. Personal bankruptcy rates are already rising -- there were 40% more in 2007 than in 2006, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. There may come a day, not too far away, when millions of consumers will throw up their hands and walk away from their mountain of unsecured debt by declaring bankruptcy.

You can follow the credit bubble as it shifts and morphs its way through our financial institutions at http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases, where the Federal Reserve posts monthly reports that track the effects of the credit crisis on America's financial infrastructure.

If the flow of money is the fuel of American capitalism, then these reports are the fuel gauge. The Fed's unglamorous reports give us hard data on how much money is coursing through the American economy.

  • Monthly G.19 Reports. These are the reports on consumer borrowing, both traditional loans (such as car loans) and "revolving debt," also known as credit cards. Each month, the Fed lists the total amount Americans have on our credit card bills. The amounts are staggering -- $968 billion in credit card debt, more than 7% higher than just last year -- and show no signs of shrinking. Read more at http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/g19/.
  • The "charge off" rate. This is the percent of loans, including credit card balances, that the lender has written off as uncollectible. The latest figures show that banks are giving up on 5.47% of the credit card amounts owed to them. This figure is the highest since the current bankruptcy law took effect, with the exception of a brief flurry of bankruptcies before the passage of the law. More information here: http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/chargeoff/.
  • The savings rate. This data shows how much Americans are saving each year. It's been hovering between zero and 2% for five years: http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/PSAVERT. For other Fed research data on personal spending, see http://www.bea.gov/national/index.htm#personal.
  • The bankruptcy filing rate. This data is kept by the US court system, updated monthly and can be found here: http://www.uscourts.gov/bnkrpctystats/statistics.htm.

You can get other important numbers and information from non-governmental sources, including: