Credit Card Debt

May 1, 2008 U.S. Credit Card Debt Soars to Unprecedented Heights

Studies indicate that credit card defaults and related write-offs increased drastically since 2006. Today, lenders write off 33 percent more in credit card debt than they did two years ago. Statistics show that about 35 percent of all credit card holders are already exhibiting signs of possible default. Late credit card payments result in fees many consumers can’t afford.

Credit card debt accelerated to unprecedented heights since bank loans began to dry up due to mortgage defaults. Total U.S. credit card debt reached almost $800 billion in November 2007, up from around $680 billion in March of last year, according to the latest available government statistics. In the aftermath of the U.S. mortgage crisis, the credit card bubble may be next to burst. In the past few years, banks have aggressively marketed credit card ownership and usage to consumers with limited income and low credit scores.

Credit card standards remain lax, while loan standards have tightened to a degree. More than 50 percent of senior loan officers said in a January 2008 Federal Reserve survey that they performed a more rigorous analysis before approving a mortgage or car loan over the prior three months. Only 14 percent said so in a mid-2007 survey of the same nature. Banks and lenders have tightened their lending standards following the collapse of the subprime market.

With borrowing venues drying up, American consumers may be drawn to credit card debt, creating defaults similar to those in the mortgage market. Credit card debt—much like mortgages—are bundled and sold by investment banks as asset-backed securities. “Rising credit card debt since April 2006 amid the decrease in the mortgage expansion rate resulted in a substantial shift to credit card borrowing from mortgage debt,” according to a recent report titled “House of Cards: Consumers Turn to Credit Cards Amid the Mortgage Crisis, Delaying Inevitable Defaults.” The report was published by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based research institute.

The rules of the credit card game usually aren’t transparent and are difficult to follow even by many sophisticated consumers. Just take any credit card agreement: Caveats are written in difficult-to-understand “legalese.” Words like “late fees, annual fees, over-limit fees, cash-advance fees, balance-transfer fees, annul fees, setup fees, fees to pay balance by telephone,” and so on, are confusingly sprinkled throughout the contract.

“Credit card debt tends to carry substantially higher costs than other forms of credit, due to myriad fees in addition to high interest rates. The result is that many borrowers unwittingly slide deeper and deeper into debt as they fall prey to the lack of transparency in credit cards,” said CAP staff.

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