Experts say more Americans will face debt and credit card defaults this year
Financial experts say more Americans will face mounting debt and delinquent credit card payments this year as the impact of COVID-19 stimulus payments eases, looming federal rate hikes take hold and inflation wipes out income gains.
Most credit card companies saw delinquency spikes in November as the impact of government relief eased.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found last month that the average US family owed $155,622 — a total of $15 trillion — in bills ranging from credit cards to mortgages as the cost of groceries, gasoline, housing, transportation and healthcare continued to increase. That includes $804 billion in credit card bills, a total that has increased over the past year.
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“With fiscal debt at a record $15 trillion and real wages falling 2.4% in 2021 on record inflation, the impact of Fed tightening on small credit card borrowers is likely to be severe, leading to rising arrears,” said Hans Dau , a supply chain analyst and CEO of the management consulting firm Mitchell Madison Group. “The COVID-related suspension of economic realities will end one way or another.”
A recent NerdWallet survey found that 78% of 2,000 US adults have received some form of government stimulus support since March 2020, with most of it going toward savings, debt, and necessities. More than a third of them said their household finances had deteriorated in the past year.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that wholesale prices in 2021 hit a record high for the year at 9.7%. That came a day after the government reported that consumer inflation rose 7% year-on-year in December, the highest since 1982.
Overall, median earnings have fallen by 3% and the cost of living has risen by almost 7% over the past two years, partly due to rising housing and healthcare costs.
Early last year, financial relief from the pandemic softened that blow, and American consumers were spending less on their credit cards as restaurants remained empty and travel options were limited.
According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s website, credit card defaults hit a long-term low in the third quarter of 2021, and mortgage debt was also at a record low.
“It appears that the massive transfer of funds from government to consumers has led to large improvements in typical consumer balance sheets,” said Bruce Yandle, a former director of the Federal Trade Commission and dean emeritus of Clemson College of Business and Behavioral Sciences.
But as spending picks up closer to the holidays, credit card balances surged toward the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31.
The Federal Reserve said mortgage balances — the bulk of household debt — rose $230 billion in the third quarter, while auto loans rose $28 billion and student loan balances rose $14 billion at the start of the school year. Credit card balances increased $17 billion, reflecting a similar increase in the second quarter, and non-home balances grew $61 billion across all debt types.
Leah Hartman, who teaches finance at the University of New Haven, said leading indicators showed America’s debt continued to rise in the fourth quarter as inflation outpaced wage growth “at least two-to-one.”
“As the Federal Reserve begins to hike interest rates, credit card borrowing rates will be higher even for those with good credit,” Ms. Hartman said. “Adjustable rate mortgages are also reverting to higher interest rates on long-term debt.”
Americans would do well to pay off their credit card balances as soon as possible, she said.
“Consumers now need to target those credit card balances,” Ms. Hartman said. “Start the New Year’s resolution to improve personal finance management.”
The National Association of Realtors, the industry’s largest trade association, has predicted that the Fed will raise interest rates by 1% this year to fight inflation.
That means heavier burdens for indebted families, but improved credit growth for lenders who will see larger gains on credit card balances.
Regina Wallace-Jones, chief operating officer of debt-consolidation firm LendStreet, said better tax habits among younger Americans could help determine “whether arrears are returning to pre-COVID levels or whether consumers have embraced a new spending normal.”
“Millennials and Generation Z have increased their debt the most each year, using debt to support them through job losses and other hardships caused by the pandemic,” Ms Wallace-Jones said. “As student loans come out of deferral, moratoriums on evictions expire, offices reopen, and the U.S. population heads toward a new post-pandemic normal, LendStreet expects consumers will struggle with spending that exceeds available cash, which is what will lead to increasing credit card debt with other debt categories.”
The Biden administration has extended its payment pause on federal student loans through May, and processor Navient on Thursday agreed to cancel 66,000 college student loans worth $1.7 billion to counter allegations of predatory lending.
But Charles Mizrahi, a former Wall Street trader who founded Alpha Investor, said Americans still need to rely less on credit cards and loans to thrive this year.
“Our economy has been solid for some time, and unfortunately too many Americans have lived beyond their means with the assumption that this will always be the case,” Mr. Mizrahi said. “We know from experience that economies go up and down, and when we hit a smack with the pandemic, it caused people who were living paycheck to paycheck to run into credit problems.”
John Berlau, director of fiscal policy at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, said pandemic lockdowns, government vaccination requirements and eviction moratoriums must also end so small businesses can keep spending and stop taking on more debt, which is passed on to consumers.
“Americans don’t need a stimulus package to solve their debt problems,” Mr. Berlau said. “They need government to end harmful mandates that are destroying their livelihoods.”