Credit card debt has been falling for 16 straight months, but consumers are not paying off their financial obligations as much as you might think.
Instead, they're walking away from the debt, forcing credit card issuers to write off as much as 90% of that reported drop, according to a recent report by CardHub.com.
U.S. banks charged off a record $83.3 billion of credit card losses last year. That amount makes up the bulk of the $93.2 billion decline in outstanding credit card debt that was reported by the Federal Reserve banks for 2009.
"The reduction in credit card debt is not because consumers have found a bag of cash under their mattresses and are now paying down their debt," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, the chief executive of CardHub.com, which helps consumers compare various credit card products from issuers.
Papadimitriou examined the Fed data detailing the declining consumer debt levels. While the numbers painted a picture of frugality and fiscal conservatism, he was baffled, considering the high numbers of cash-strapped consumers and the now 9.7% jobless rate.
"When consumers are paying off more than they usually do, that's a time of financial health," Papadimitriou said.
What Papadimitriou found was that last year outstanding credit card debt dropped an eye-popping $93.2 billion to about $876 billion, according to Fed data, which is not seasonally adjusted.
During the same period, chargeoffs — the unsecured debt the banks determine they will not get back and charge off to loss reserves — added up to $83.3 billion.
In other words, only about $10 billion of the drop is attributable to consumers paying off their debt.