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Hidden Good News on Credit Cards

In a sign that consumers are getting back on their feet, new data released today shows that credit-card debts are shrinking. Dig deeper into the fine print and there’s better news: Fewer credit-card bills are going unpaid.

Marie C Fields / Shutterstock.com

Revolving debt, which mostly includes credit cards, hit $850.7 billion in July, down slightly from the prior month and falling at a 6.8% annual rate, according to new, seasonally adjusted data released by the Federal Reserve this afternoon. Total outstanding credit-card debt continues to drop from its peak of more than $1 trillion in 2008.

The numbers suggest that consumers are paying their credit-card bills, but that’s not the full story. For most of the past few years, a lot of this decline has been due to so-called charge-offs, which is when lenders no longer expect borrowers to repay a debt and write it off as a loss. Card issuers charged off $8.5 billion in credit-card debt during the second quarter of 2012, down slightly from the previous quarter, according to a new study from credit-card comparison site CardHub.com.

Perhaps more important to the broader economy, credit-card charge-off rates are slowing down. After a peak of 10.9% of the value of outstanding credit-card loans was charged off in the second quarter of 2010, this figure has been dropping back to historical norms, falling to 4.21% during the second quarter of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve. “Charge-off rates are approaching pre-recession levels,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive at CardHub.com. He says that’s in part because more individuals are returning to work and keeping up with their payments.

In total, issuers have charged off roughly $226 billion since the beginning of 2009, according to the site. Papadimitriou says that accounts for the entire decrease in the amount of credit-card debt. Keith Leggett, vice president and senior economist at the American Bankers Association, says other factors, including individuals paying down their debt and scaling back usage of credit cards, also played a role.

In general, card issuers charge off credit-card debt once 90 days pass without receiving any payments from the borrower, says Leggett. At that point, he says, banks consider it unlikely that this debt will be paid back. But consumers are in no way off the hook for those unpaid bills, and the damage to their credit can be severe. In most cases, lenders notify the credit bureaus about the charge-off as well as the amount that hasn’t been repaid – which stays on borrowers’ credit reports for roughly seven years, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com, a credit-monitoring site.

The potential benefits of fewer charge-offs reach beyond consumers with debt issues. When credit-card issuers take fewer losses, it can lead to an overall loosening of credit, a factor that could add fuel to an economic recovery.


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