Personal bankruptcy filings are on their way down for the first time since 1994, but a prominent consumer credit researcher is warning lenders that the trend will not last.
The decline is evident in bankruptcy statistics for the first quarter, said Stuart A. Feldstein, president of SMR Research Corp. The number is off by 12% from the fourth quarter, and he said he sees a decline of 12% to 15% for the full year, compared with 1998.
That would bring the national personal bankruptcy total down to about 1.2 million from the 1998 record of 1.38 million.
The falloff is due, in large part, to lower interest rates, which have spurred many to refinance their mortgages, saving about $100 a month, Mr. Feldstein said.
He said bankruptcies will rise again because of various demographic and behavioral factors, including the fact that many people do not keep a large enough savings account reserve.
"More than one-third of the entire population is immediately at risk of insolvency if almost anything financially negative happens to them," Mr. Feldstein said this week at the Faulkner & Gray credit card conference in Orlando.
Fewer people than ever before can cope with an income reduction for even a month or two, he said, because they have no savings.
Relying on U.S. Census data, SMR Research found that more than 40% of households had less than $1,000 of liquid assets in 1995. That figure is getting progressively worse.
Hackettstown, N.J.-based SMR also analyzed about 40,000 records from a consumer credit counseling organization and concluded that unemployment is not the greatest cause of bankruptcy. Only 10% of the counseling agency's clients said they were in trouble because they had lost a job; 19% cited a recent drop in income.
Some were salespeople who worked on commission and were not selling as much. Some had changed jobs, absorbing a pay cut. Some owned businesses that ran aground. Others were single mothers whose alimony payments ceased.
These stories explain why the United States "can have low unemployment and record bankruptcies at the same time," Mr. Feldstein said.
Medical debts are also a big problem. Mr. Feldstein estimated they are responsible for 10% to 20% of bankruptcies. Lenders evaluating credit applications have no way of knowing about such debts because they are not reported to credit bureaus. "Medical debt is a blind issue," Mr. Feldstein said.
Other reasons cited for the growth of consumer filings include gambling debts, increasingly aggressive lawyers who solicit bankruptcy business, and the loss of the social stigma associated with bankruptcy.
Mr. Feldstein pointed to Memphis, which has had the highest bankruptcy rate in the nation for 10 years. One in every 22 households there has been in bankruptcy.
"Almost everyone in Memphis knows some neighbor, friend, or relative who has filed and may now be doing better than before," Mr. Feldstein said. "That sure takes the mystery out of the process."
SMR's research showed that places with high bankruptcy rates such as Memphis rarely improve in terms of bankruptcy filings, regardless of the local economy's health. "This fact is hard to explain unless you think about social stigma," Mr. Feldstein said.
Lenders also have played a role. "Over the last 10 years, the marketing people have had more influence within their organizations than the credit risk people," Mr. Feldstein said in an interview.
Credit cards are seen as culprits, but mortgages constitute a much larger portion of consumers' total debt, and more people are becoming homeowners without making substantial down payments. About 70% of households own their homes, yet according to Chicago Title Corp., 54% of homes purchased in 1998 were bought with down payments of 10% or less.
Another worrisome trend, Mr. Feldstein said, is the 40% of credit card accounts that are inactive but have untapped lines of credit.
"While the number of consumers with virtually no savings is rising, the number with open and available credit lines is rising, too," he said. "That's a dangerous combination. You begin to see why America has high credit risk during good economic times."