December 2017 is something of an anniversary for Americans – though one they probably don’t like to celebrate.
Exactly one decade ago, the Great Recession officially began with the bursting of the $8 trillion real estate bubble. Almost overnight, housing prices crashed, the credit markets dried up for all but the most credit-worthy of customers and enterprises, consumer spending fell through the floor and the economy shed jobs at a rate not seen since the 1930s. Between 2008 and 2009, the U.S. labor market lost 8.4 million jobs, or 6.1 percent of all payroll employment.
By point of comparison, the 1981 recession, the previous #2 position holder for worst modern economic downturn, saw net job losses of only 3.1 percent.
Given the severity of the downturn – combined with a recovery period that one might generously describe as sluggish – the consumer’s relationships to debt changed, sharply.
According to data from the New York Federal Reserve, credit card balances during the 2008-2009 period fell by $136 billion (including write-offs), and roughly 40 percent of that reduction was due to a newfound enthusiasm for “household frugality.”
The total number of open consumer credit card accounts also plummeted. According to the Fed study, the number of accounts peaked at around 500 million in mid-2008; by Q3 2010, that figure had plummeted to 378 million.
The Fed attributed some of that decline to consumers closing accounts – or having their accounts closed – and consumers failing to reopen new ones because they were unable to get new credit card accounts, given more stringent underwriting standards in an environment of tight credit.
But, the Fed concluded, the more impactful change was in consumer behavior. Consumers were closing cards of their own volition, and were simply less inclined to even apply for new cards at all.
“The available evidence suggests that fewer applications for credit … contributed to the decline in new account openings,” the Fed economists concluded.
But that was 2010, less than a year out of the worst recession in modern memory, when consumers were feeling their most skittish -=– and lenders were at their most selective.
Where are we now, 10 years out?
Just in time to answer that question is the CFPB, which yesterday released its biennial report on the state of the credit card market in the United States.
Close – But Not Quite Recovered To Pre-Recession Levels
The general trend, particularly when taken against the deep, dark days of credit despair 10 years ago, is toward growth. The average credit line, average number of accounts, average outstanding card debt and enrollment in digital card services have all shown marked increases over the last six years (the CFPB has been releasing the biennial credit card report since 2013).
The cost of cards has been largely flat in terms of cost of credit, both in general and across credit tiers, since the last report in 2015. Consumer costs, as measured in interest rates and fees, have also been largely stable over the last two years.
That, the report suggests, has created an environment in which issuers have become more creative in attracting customers.
“Rewards programs of all kinds proliferate, new digital account servicing tools help consumers manage purchases, debt and account security, and new providers are entering this and adjacent markets with new products that compete with incumbents,” the report noted.
New credit card originations remain below pre-crisis levels, but are up roughly 50 percent since the 2010 low-water mark. In 2016, consumers opened approximately 110 million new credit card accounts, which is roughly 50 percent higher than 2010 and higher than any single year since 2007.
All in, levels haven’t reached full recovery – consumers had about $4 trillion in credit card debt as of the close of 2017, which is $400 million less than the mid-2008 high of $4.4 trillion.
Consumers’ credit lines are increasing across every tier, the report noted. That represents a change from the 2015 report, when increases in credit lines were seen in the prime and near-prime tiers, but both sub-prime and deep sub-prime categories remained largely flat.
Credit card debt is also on the rise, up 9 percent on average over the last two years. Those increases have been much more notable on the lower end of the credit spectrum than in other tiers. For example, cardholders with deep sub-prime scores have seen a 26 percent increase in their average credit card debt over the last two years.
That rate, according to the CFPB’s data, has started to tick up, though very slightly, with the number of accounts 60 days delinquent for both private label and general cards below 1.5 percent. For share of balances more than 60 days delinquent, private label cards have seen that figure grow slightly to 3.8 percent, while general purpose cards are showing delinquency rates slightly below 1.9 percent.
“This uptick in delinquency and charge-off rates remains small, but is occurring in the absence of any concurrent deterioration in broader economic conditions;” the report stated.
Consumers, other than remaining committed to paying off their debts, are also becoming increasingly digital. Around 60 percent of all credit card accounts are enrolled in online services, and one-third of mass market, general purpose accounts were enrolled in mobile servicing applications.
Customers – particularly sub-prime and deep sub-prime customers – are also increasingly using “secured” credit cards that require a cash deposit for use, with large balances going to larger deposits. On the whole, the number of secured cards in the market was up 7 percent between 2016 and 2017, with the CFPB predicting more growth between 2016 and 2017. In 2017, secured cards accounted for roughly 25 percent of general purpose originations to consumers with a deep sub-prime score or no score. Secured cards were also popular with millennial consumers looking to establish a credit footprint, as roughly 7 percent of all cards issued to 21- to 34-year-old consumers were secured credit cards.
But, as the CFPB noted, the number of those sub-prime and deep sub-prime customers is declining, as the average consumer credit score has been trending upward over the last two years.
“In fact, this shift has occurred even as the total scored population has been growing, making it more striking that the absolute number of consumers with lower credit scores has been declining,” the report noted. “Since the period spanning late 2009 through late 2011, when both the absolute number and the share of consumers with lower credit scores peaked, the number of consumers with lower scores has fallen by five million.”
It is hard, of course, to draw conclusions from a single report – or even a three-report series. Still, it seems some things are becoming clear.
The first point is that consumers in general seem to have gotten over the profound fear of credit brought on by the downturn. It seems millennials – who many experts widely predicted would never want to use credit products – are in fact not only interested, but willing to invest in a secured card product to get a toe into the marketplace.
And while we can’t determine if Americans have truly learned their lesson this time, the low delinquency rates and lower number of total accounts indicates they might have gotten more circumspect about the use of credit.
Which means 2018 might see a continuation of the strong spending trends that characterized the 2017 holiday season. Consumers have cards once again (though not quite as many as they did 10 years ago), and for the first time in a decade, it seems they feel more comfortable using them.