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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Credit Practices and the New Bankruptcy Law

An email suggests this article on credit practices and the new bankruptcy law:

Banks Gone Wild, by Joe Lee and Thomas Parrish, Commentary, NY Times: “I owe about $12,000 in unsecured debt, and my payments just keep going up,” a troubled citizen signing himself T. P. recently informed a personal-finance columnist. He always paid more than the minimum amount due on his credit card bill, but “still the balance never goes down,” T .P. wrote. “Is there any way to get the interest rate down?”

The interest rate that so oppressed T. P.? A towering 29.99 percent. At this rate, ... if T. P. continued to pay little more than the monthly minimum, it could take him more than 30 years to pay off his balance...

Trying to fight off a collection agency while paying little or nothing on his credit card debt, another desperate borrower, R. Z., appealed to this same columnist. How could he prevent interest charges and late fees from mounting? He couldn’t, replied the columnist, as long as he legally owed the money. ...

Thirty years ago, the unlucky R. Z. would probably have struck many of his acquaintances as something of a deadbeat: Hadn’t he voluntarily run up a debt and then tried to slip out of the deal? T. P., on the other hand, would have received sympathy as the victim of a heartless usurer...

As anybody with a mailbox knows, credit card issuers make unrelenting efforts to lure accounts from one another as well as to establish new accounts. And what these lenders seek are “revolvers,” people ... who are likely to pay little more than the monthly minimum — and who eventually find themselves in thrall to mushrooming interest payments, abundantly garnished with late fees.

As for the morality involved in lending money at exorbitant rates, the word “usury” itself has taken on a quaint, archaic sound, like “jousting” or “necromancy.” What happened?

In 1978, the United States Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision that freed banks to charge the interest rates allowed in their home states to customers across the country. This decision, at a time of high inflation, unleashed a national credit storm: states scrambled to relax usury laws in order to attract banks, while banks rushed to establish affiliates in states that weakened or abolished such laws. ...

Unsurprisingly, in the 25 years since the credit explosion began, personal bankruptcy filings have risen sharply. Bank advocates have argued that this reflected debtors’ increasing abuse of the protections granted by the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978. Personal bankruptcies, said the industry, were costing every household a hidden tax of $400 a year...

In 2005, these suffering financial institutions succeeded in securing the adoption of new federal legislation, the marvelously named Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. Nobody who favored this bill chose to see that the bankruptcy epidemic had been produced in large measure by the banks, or that the real hidden costs were the usurious interest rates these banks charged borrowers.

Two simple comparisons demonstrate the point: From 1980 to 2004, personal bankruptcy filings increased 443.45 percent, which is certainly impressive. But over the same time, consumer credit debt rose a bit more, by 501.29 percent. In 1980, less than one personal bankruptcy case was filed for each $1 million in consumer credit outstanding; the figure was slightly smaller in 2004.

Bankruptcies tend to rise as amounts of credit rise. No mystery there, and certainly no epidemic. It all suggests that the bankruptcy code was performing remarkably well. But the banks got what they wanted from Washington. ...

A group of credit-counseling firms that provide bankruptcy screening — a step the new law requires — report that 97 percent of the clients could not repay any debts at all, and 79 percent sought relief for reasons beyond their control, like job loss and large medical expenses and, notably, rising credit card fees and predatory lending practices.

A boomerang effect has appeared, too. The new law contains a provision forcing many debtors into Chapter 13 compulsory repayment plans. The bill’s backers expected this fresh squeeze on debtors to produce more cash for the banks, but the trend appears to be downward.

In adopting the provision, Congress disregarded the advice of every disinterested group that has looked at the question, including three presidential commissions, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. It also ignored a past House Judiciary Committee report, which declared that such compulsion might well amount to the imposition of involuntary servitude.

So the lending goes on. People classed as the “working poor,” now beginning to be tapped by the credit card vendors, no doubt constitute a rich supply of coveted potential revolvers — fresh customers for the banks to draw into the credit maze, with its minimums and its unending late fees. In signing the 2005 act, President Bush declared that it would make more credit available to poor people. Unquestionably so. And 30 percent interest was just what they needed, wasn’t it?

I'm up against a time constraint, so I'm going to leave this one to you. Is the problem coercive behavior from the credit card companies, or is it the responsibility of the consumers who get into credit trouble know to about and take responsibly for the risks they undertake?

    Posted by on Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 08:33 PM in Economics, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (66)

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