Some long-standing principles of lending may be breaking down rapidly in the face of unprecedented consumer access to mortgages, credit cards, and lines of credit.
In a recent survey by the Federal Reserve Board, 56% of loan officers surveyed at 36 banks said their credit-scoring models had been "too optimistic" in predicting consumer behavior in the past year.
Analysts say homeownership, previously regarded as a sign of financial stability, is one of the factors whose significance has changed. That may be because the mortgage industry, under political pressure, has extended easier credit to so many first-time homeowners with low incomes, a prominent housing economist says.
Between 1990 and 1995, the number of loans to low-income borrowers, defined as those who make less than 80% of area median income, increased by 21%, according to the Federal Reserve Board.
Indeed, one Midwest bank with a reputation for statistical astuteness has found a disproportionate numbers of homeowners among recently bankrupt credit card holders. If this proves broadly true, it would underscore the difficulties of predicting the behavior of consumers at a time when they are awash in credit - and when reliance on scoring models is increasing.
Even when consumers have a clean slate when first evaluated, they can go underwater very quickly. "Because there are so many card companies, consumer credit companies and mortgage companies out there soliciting, this customer could take on two or three other pieces of debt within a three- month period, and the credit could deteriorate substantially," says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Regional Financial Associates, West Chester, Pa.
Low-income homeowners may be particularly vulnerable, says Mr. Zandi. Often, their homes were purchased by cobbling together down payments with government grants and family loans. Many are first-generation homeowners with little experience managing debt.
Consumer counseling agencies working with lenders and nonprofits tell first-time owners to watch out for credit card offers and make sure they don't get overextended, says Joanne Kerstetter, president, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Washington.
Meanwhile, at Star Banc Corp., Cincinnati, a survey of 2,400 credit card holders who declared bankruptcy between January 1995 and May 1996 found that homeowners were more much more likely to be bankrupt than others, according to Collin McKenny, senior vice president.
Ms. McKenny said the bank surmises that one reason homeowners were more prone to bankruptcy was because many have adjustable-rate mortgages whose payments have climbed.
Now Star Banc more closely monitors whether its borrowers are juggling mounting debt by signing up for additional credit cards.
At Fair, Isaac & Co., San Rafael, Calif., Richard Strauch, senior project manager, says homeownership has never been a big factor in credit scoring.
Another major credit scoring provider, Atlanta-based CCN MDS Division, says fewer banks ask prospective borrowers whether they own a home.