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Consumer Credit Bubble Could Drag Economy into Recession

Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:21 PM
W. E. Messamore
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:21 PM
  • Consumer credit card charge-offs shot up year over year in the third quarter to levels unseen since 2013.
  • Meanwhile consumer debt is showing distress in auto loans and housing, as banks shore up loan loss reserves by billions.
  • The vast securitization of consumer credit card debt has all the makings of another Great Recession.

Consumer credit card delinquency and charge-offs rocketed to seven year highs  in the third quarter. At the top 100 U.S. banks, third quarter charge-offs are at levels unseen since 2013.

Credit card delinquency occurs when a payment is past due for 30 days or more . A credit card charge-off occurs after 180 days of non-payment . That’s when the issuer marks a charge-off on the borrower’s credit history and can sell the debt to a collections agency.

Meanwhile the top four credit card issuers (Chase, Citibank, Capital One and Bank of America) shored up loan loss reserves by 9.9%. Each of the Top 4 has set aside over half a billion additional dollars in reserve.

That’s troubling news as Wall Street bulls pin their hopes on the American consumer to keep the record-long economic expansion going.

Maybe that’s why Goldman Sachs reports every one of its private equity clients is bracing for recession .

A Perilous Consumer Credit Bubble?

consumer credit panel
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel / Equifax 

It’s not only the consumer credit card market showing cracks.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, auto loan delinquencies set an eight year record high in Q2 this year .

Meanwhile, foreclosures in the U.S. housing market shot up 13% in October.

The Great Recession All Over Again

The Federal Reserve’s low interest rate environment is fueling the consumer credit bubble in two ways.

First, it makes banking less profitable and unattractive to investors . That incentivizes banks to push riskier, but more profitable, high interest rate products like consumer credit cards.

Secondly, it floods banks with money to lend out for these riskier investments. This has created another bubble in equities along with consumer credit, as the flood of easy money chases quick profits.

The volume of subprime and deep subprime credit card originations  tracked by the US Consumer Finance Bureau over the last decade is staggering.

Is This the Bubble that Crashes the Party?

total consumer credit owed and securitized
Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 

And Wall Street is back to its old, pre-recession ways, bundling risky investments into asset backed securities and selling the securitized consumer debts to each other for massive profits.

Last year there were 70 such deals globally, with $44 billion and 70 bundles of securitized credit card debts changing hands . At the end of September 2019, consumer credit backed securities totaled $4.1 billion .

And it’s not just consumer debt that’s buckling under the weight of over leveraged credit. The charge-off rate on commercial and industrial loans for all U.S. commercial banks spiked 23% in Q3 .

In May, Fed Chair Jerome Powell warned of a “moderate” risk that business debt  at “historic highs” could spill over into the rest of the economy and trigger another financial crisis.

In June, the New York Times reported on how an unregulated “shadow banking” industry , backed in part by Wall Street, is fueling risky loans to businesses. Lawmakers and regulators can’t keep up with all the gray areas, or stop the flood of liquidity from flowing into them.

Mark Twain is often attributed with the quip:

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

The next recession triggering event is unlikely to start in the housing loan market again. We’re already once burnt, twice shy in housing loans. A bubble bursting in a different sector rife with risk and greed is more likely to ripple through the economy next. The consumer credit market is one to watch.