Economy could feel pinch as consumers struggle with debt

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- The bills are coming due for the shopping spree of the 1990s, and Americans are having trouble paying up.

Personal debt is at an all-time high, and the amount of income Americans are dedicating to making payments on it is at levels unseen in 15 years. Mortgage delinquencies and write-offs by credit card companies are rising, and personal bankruptcy filings could hit a record this year.

That translates to serious financial pain for families that are overextended at a time when unemployment is rising, experts say. It also means that just when the cooling U.S. economy needs spending by consumers to sustain growth, they're hard-pressed to do so.

''Consumer debt isn't a problem unless and until people lose their jobs, and that has started to happen,'' said David Orr, chief economist at the First Union Corp. in Charlotte, N.C. ''It's not the cause of the economy's problems, but it can make the snowball roll downhill faster.''

The Bush administration hopes lower tax rates and the tax rebates to be mailed starting in July can help revive consumer spending, a major engine of the economy.

But will debt-burdened Americans will rush out and spend their $300 to $600 rebate checks or will they just pay off existing bills?

Marcia O'Duggan of Lewiston, Minn., says that at least half of her family's rebate check will go toward debt payment.

O'Duggan, a 38-year-old teacher, and her husband John, 35, an inspector at a die-casting plant, went $30,000 into debt for schooling and medical bills. With five children to support, it became harder and harder to make even minimum payments, she said.

Since getting help from credit counselors three years ago, the O'Duggans have whittled their debt to $15,000, but figure they've still got 2 1/2 more years of tight budgets ahead.

''It used to be that if someone needed pants and we didn't have $30 in our account, we just charged it,'' she said. ''We don't do that anymore. We don't use credit. And you know what? We're OK.''

But many families aren't.

Durant Abernethy, president of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization that helps families with debt problems, says the number of people seeking assistance is rising rapidly.

''Our average client -- the policeman, the firefighter, the teacher, the nurse -- is carrying more debt than they've ever carried, and they're in trouble,'' Abernethy said. ''If their overtime is cut back or a husband or wife is laid off, they have virtually no savings, so they go over the edge.''

The national balance on credit cards, auto loans and other consumer loans rose to a record $1.58 trillion in April, according to the Federal Reserve. Mortgage debt totals about $5.2 trillion.

Americans are spending 14.3 percent of their take-home pay on debts -- the highest percentage since 1986, Fed figures show.

Credit card delinquencies -- accounts at least 30 days past due -- have been hovering at about 5 percent, up from 4.3 percent a year ago.

In April, credit-card issuers wrote off uncollectible balances at an annual rate of 6.7 percent, according to Standard & Poor's. That was the highest loss rate since February 1997.

''We had good economic times through the middle of last year, so people felt they could borrow money,'' said David Blitzer, S&P's chief investment strategist. ''In our society, people don't cut debt until they're squeezed.''

Mortgage delinquencies rose to 4.5 percent of outstanding loans in the final quarter of 2000, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. That was the highest since 4.6 percent in the third quarter of 1992. There was a slight improvement in the first quarter this year.

Perhaps the strongest measure of American debt distress is the rise in bankruptcies.

The number of bankruptcy cases filed in the first quarter rose to about 367,000, up 17.5 percent from a year earlier, according to federal figures. Most of the debtors were consumers.

If the trend continues, filings this year will exceed the record 1.44 million in 1998.

Some of the activity could be by debtors worried that Congress soon may tighten bankruptcy laws.

But Gwen Reichbach, an adviser to the GE Center for Financial Learning, says some Americans are victims of their own success.

''People were lulled into a false sense of security,'' she said. '''Oh yeah, I can take on another loan payment. I can take a vacation, buy a new car, buy a boat. I can put it on my credit card. I've got a good job'.''

Too few saved for emergencies, she said.

''Unfortunately, it doesn't take much for that house of cards to fall,'' she said.

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