Nobody disputes that bankruptcy filings have continued to grow in the past couple of years, reaching record levels each time a total is tallied at the end of a month, quarter, or year.
The lesser known fact is that the rate of this growth has been steadily declining.
"If the headline for the past two years has been that bankruptcy is growing at a record rate, today's headline should be that the growth in personal bankruptcies has stopped," said Lawrence M. Ausubel, professor of economics at the University of Maryland at College Park.
That is not to say that people have stopped filing for bankruptcy. Rather, the number of filings each quarter has been roughly about the same, when seasonal adjustments are taken into account.
For example, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, 354,118 personal and business bankruptcies were filed in the first quarter, compared with 353,073 filings in the third quarter of last year.
This relative parity-against the backdrop of an industry up in arms about bankruptcy levels-led Prof. Ausubel to declare that bankers are "crying wolf."
Prof. Ausubel, who has testified before Congress on bankruptcy, said the industry "has been telling everybody that bankruptcies are going through the roof, and it's enlightening to see the growth that they are talking about has stopped for the moment."
Lenders and the associations that represent them disagree. Though they acknowledge that the growth in bankruptcy filings is declining, they point to the record number-1.42 million personal filings for the 12 months ended March 31-of people who have filed for bankruptcy.
"The real issue is not a growth rate," said Thomas Layman, chief economist at Visa U.S.A. "It is the absolute number of filers."
Mr. Layman's own number crunching shows that, for the past five consecutive quarters, the growth rate has been declining.
"We are pleased by this," he said.
Prof. Ausubel attributed the decline to a flattening of the household debt burden and a strong economy.
"Why is bankruptcy growing at all during a healthy economy and when unemployment is at about an eight-year low?" asked Edward Bankole, a senior analyst at Moody's Investors Service.
Mr. Bankole cautioned that the slowing bankruptcy growth rate would reaccelerate when the economy turns down.
Though there are many ways to look at bankruptcy trends, the test that has gained the spotlight is the absolute number of filings.
Debate over the bankruptcy reform legislation that is quickly moving through Congress is mostly focusing on the latter. And the total could grow as a result of the looming legislation.
As legislators move toward tightening the bankruptcy system, consumer bankruptcy lawyers are advising their clients to file sooner rather than later, said Bruce A. Markell, a professor at Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington.
A rush to get into the system before it becomes more difficult could increase the number of people filing in the next few months, experts said.