A caveat on that drop in credit card debt

Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 6:20 PM

I keep wondering if consumers will learn their lesson from this recession - to rely less on credit cards and more on the cash they have.

If you look at recent reports, it does appear that people are pulling back from plastic and becoming more frugal.

Just last month, TransUnion, one of the three big credit bureaus, said the average debt on all bank-issued credit cards continued to drift downward for the fifth consecutive quarter. During the second quarter of this year, the debt dropped more than 13 percent compared with the second quarter of 2009 - to an average $4,951 from $5,719. This marked the first time credit card debt was below the $5,000 average since early 2002.

The national credit card delinquency rate for the second quarter of this year was down by 17 percent compared with the previous quarter, TransUnion reported, noting that consumers continue to pay down their credit cards in response to economic uncertainty and high unemployment.

CreditKarma.com, a Web site that provides credit information, reported that its "U.S. Credit Score Climate Report" data show that consumer credit card debt has decreased 3 percent since January.

Federal Reserve data appear to back up these reports. According to the central bank, July was the 23rd consecutive month that revolving consumer debt decreased.

But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And that's quite an appropriate saying when you consider the financial havoc credit card debt can cause.

Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive and founder of CardHub.com, a credit card comparison Web site, had his doubts that a significant percentage of consumers were actually paying down their credit cards.

So he took the Federal Reserve data and ran the numbers a different way. He looked at how much credit card debt the banks were writing off their books. Turns out, he discovered, that a lot of the decrease in credit card debt is coming from charge-offs, as opposed to a jump in consumers paying down their balances. Papadimitriou said his analysis shows that previous studies have failed to factor in the increasing rate of credit card charge-offs, which occur when the creditor declares the debt uncollectible. Typically, credit card debt is charged off when a consumer becomes 180 days delinquent.

"I don't think we should be patting ourselves on the back and creating this false sense of good news and optimism for consumers when that is not what is happening," Papadimitriou said in an interview. "Let's get the message straight that we are still heading in the wrong direction."

I had my doubts, too. I work closely with people in debt and I speak to a lot of groups, and, anecdotally, I wasn't seeing what the reports were showing. There has not been a slowdown in the number of people I'm hearing from and talking to who are in credit card trouble. Many have been relying on credit after spending through whatever savings they had after a job loss. Others, who have had to take lower-paying jobs, are struggling to pay credit card debt accumulated before and after their unemployment.

CardHub's analysis found that credit card debt for the second quarter of this year decreased by about $12 billion compared with the previous quarter. But banks charged off $21.8 billion during the same period. Given that the drop in outstanding debt is smaller than the dollar amount that was charged off, the difference of $9.8 billion is the amount of debt consumers accumulated, Papadimitriou said.

His findings give a more realistic view of how seriously the recession has crippled consumers. The charge-offs also indicate that many banks are continuing to experience deep losses, and this is one of the reasons why credit is still tight. It's why many lenders have been cutting people's credit limits, he said.

"We need to keep remembering throughout this recovery that reverting back to where we were is the wrong thing to do, because we were in a bubble," Papadimitriou said. "Holding the bar to where things used to be and expecting and wanting to get back there means just prolonging the same pattern of getting into another big recession a few years from now."

CardHub's analysis of the credit data is just the skeptical look we need. It's too soon to declare that many American consumers are reformed spendthrifts who have not learned their lesson. Too many people are still leaning on credit in these lean times.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions might be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company