After a two-year dip in personal bankruptcy filings, there are signs that the decline will end this year.
The federal Administrative Office of the Courts reported that filings declined in 1993 by 9.9%, to 875,202, and dropped in 1994 by 4.8%, to 833,178, but Visa U.S.A. expects the number to exceed 900,000 this year.
Visa, which tracks such statistics daily, found that bankruptcy filings, which usually peak in March and April and then decline to the end of the year, have continued to climb. Filings have reached an average of 18,000 a week, versus an average of 12,000, which is normal for this time of year.
It is still too early to speculate about the meaning of these results, said Kenneth R. Crone, Visa's vice president of issuer risk.
But John F. Ellingson, co-founder of the Bankruptcy Information Bureau of Dallas, attributes the rise in filings this year to the great disparity between the growth rates of credit card receivables and wages.
The two rates are the furthest apart they have ever been, he said.
Mr. Ellingson referred to the period 1993-94 as an "inevitable hiatus" from 10 years of continuous growth in bankruptcy filings. During those two years, inflation declined and the economy was relatively healthy, he said.
Visa, which released its annual bank card bankruptcy survey this month, pointed to more troubling trends as well as some positive signs that the bank card industry is becoming more effective in fighting and identifying fraudulent and abusive filings.
The survey is based on responses from 85 of the top 100 credit card issuers.
It found that bankruptcy filings on accounts less than one year old have increased for the second consecutive year, from 6.2% in 1993 to 8.3% in 1994, compared with 3.9% in 1992.
The San Francisco-based association maintains that people who file for bankruptcy shortly after opening a new credit card account are more likely to be perpetrators of fraud or abuse.
"Our concern is that (issuers) may not have complete credit information," which would explain why such consumers are qualifying for new credit cards, said Mr. Crone.
Still the majority of credit card accounts that result in bankruptcies have existed for at least five years. The new account filings account for just 8.3% of bankruptcy filings.
The average bankruptcy loss is also steadily increasing, Visa found. The average loss increased by $267 since 1992, to $3,600.
Mr. Crone said that more people are qualifying for gold cards, which have higher credit limits.
On the positive side, the survey found that there has been a decrease in Chapter 7 filings, the most troubling form of bankruptcy for lenders because filers are able to liquidate all unsecured debt within 90 days. Chapter 7 filings decreased 1.9% and Chapter 13 filings, which require filers to adhere to a repayment schedule, increased 2.1%.
Mr. Crone believes the increase in Chapter 13 filings is a direct result of new bankruptcy legislation, passed last October, that increased the debt limits allowing more people to qualify for Chapter 13.
Bank card issuers are also getting better at identifying fraudulent and abusive filers. The ratio of recovery dollars to legal fees and costs spent to produce those recoveries increased from 6.9 in 1993 to 9.1 in 1994.
The survey pointed out that only 3.3% of respondents have no recovery program, compared with 70% six years ago.
Smaller institutions are challenging 8% to 15% of bankruptcies, Mr. Crone said, while larger issuers target 3% to 5%, or the most egregious cases.
When issuers evaluate a bankruptcy file they typically look for misstatements in income, luxury purchases, or cash advances on the eve of the bankruptcy, plus statements of possessions such as real estate that might not appear on the bankruptcy file.
"We believe that close to 25% of filings involve some sort of fraud or abuse," said Mr. Crone.