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Rising Household Debt: Increasing Demand or Increasing Supply?

From Liberty Street Economics by Basit Zafar, Max Livingston, and Wilbert van der Klaauw:

Total consumer debt continued to increase in the first quarter of this year, marking the first time since the recession that aggregate debt had grown for three consecutive quarters, according to the May 2014Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit. Is this increase in household debt driven by changes in supply or demand? The January 2014 and April 2014 Senior Loan Officer Opinion Surveys (SLOOS) show an increase in lenders’ willingness to make consumer loans over the last several quarters and an increase in the number of lenders reporting looser lending standards, which indicates that credit supply is increasing. To get a better sense of the underlying factors in the evolution of household credit conditions, in February we surveyed 1,110 respondents of the New York Fed’s Survey of Consumer Expectations (SCE) about their ability to obtain credit over the past twelve months and their expectations about future credit access.

Past Experiences

To assess the demand for credit and measure how much of that demand was met, we classify our respondents into four groups. In February 2014, 40 percent of respondents reported not applying for any type of credit over the past twelve months because they didn’t need it (satisfied consumers); 40 percent of respondents reported applying for some type of credit and being approved (accepted applicants); 13 percent reported applying for some type of credit and being rejected (rejected applicants); and 8 percent reported not applying for credit despite needing it because they believed they would not be approved. This last group represents latent demand for credit; we refer to them as discouraged consumers. The leftmost two bars in the chart below show that the distribution of respondents in February 2014 looked quite similar to that in May 2013 (the results of which we discussed in a previous post): we see a slight increase in satisfied consumers from May to February and a slight decrease in accepted applicants. Note that the SCE is a rotating panel, so the respondents in the two surveys will be different; however, we use weights to ensure that the statistics reported in this post remain representative of the population of U.S. household heads.

Borrowers’ Credit Experiences, by Credit Score The picture, however, varies radically when split by credit score. The chart above shows that individuals with lower credit scores (those with credit scores below 680) were more likely to report that they were rejected, and much more likely to report that they were discouraged, than their more creditworthy counterparts. In February, 22 percent of respondents in the low-credit-score group were discouraged, versus 3 percent in the middle-credit-score group, and zero percent in the high-credit-score group (those with scores of above 760). Furthermore, the chart shows that credit experiences got markedly worse for the low-credit-score group in February 2014 compared with May 2013: 57 percent of this group reported either being denied credit or being too discouraged to apply in February this year, versus 47 percent in May of last year. This result contrasts with the experiences of their more creditworthy counterparts, which were largely unchanged since May 2013. These patterns suggest that although banks may be increasing their lending activity, they are not necessarily taking on more risk, as the risky population has not seen an improvement in its ability to obtain credit.

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