Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Forget the Mortgage, I'm Paying My Credit Card Bill

Luke Mullins at U.S. News & World Report casts a dark cloud over any pollyanna recovery talk:

Amid high unemployment and sliding home prices, a growing number of struggling consumers are doing what was once considered unthinkable: paying their credit card bills instead of their mortgages. A recent study developed by TransUnion found the percentage of Americans who were current on their credit cards but behind on their mortgage increased to 6.6 percent in the third quarter of 2009, up from 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2008. Meanwhile, the share of consumers making mortgage payments on time but behind on their credit cards moved in the opposite direction, sliding from 4.1 percent to 3.6 percent over the same time period.

The data reflects a "fundamental paradigm shift" in the way consumers prioritize payment of debt obligations, says Ezra Becker, of TransUnion. "This is dramatically different," he says. "It is a clear manifestation of the dynamics that lead up to the recession and the recession itself."

Before the housing crisis, bankers typically operated under the assumption that homeowners would do whatever possible to remain current on their mortgage--even if that meant falling behind on other bills. "It used to be that the mortgage was sacrosanct," says Keith Gumbinger of HSH.com. "You paid it before anything else." But a combination of factors linked to the current economic mess--falling home prices, high unemployment, and tight consumer credit--have lead many consumers to prioritize credit card payments above mortgage bills. "This sort of thing is what keeps bankers awake at night," Gumbinger says.


Still, another key factor is the disparate consequences associated with defaulting on a mortgage versus those for falling behind on a credit card. National anti-foreclosure efforts have worked to significantly extend the time period between a borrower's initial mortgage default notice and the foreclosure itself, says Edward Pinto, a former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae. "The last thing you have to worry about at this juncture is paying your mortgage because by the time they foreclose it could be six months, 12 months, or a year and a half down the road," Pinto said.

A credit card, however, can disappear much quicker, Becker says. "If you go a couple months without paying your credit card bill, they are going to close your account," he says. "You won't be able to access your credit."


No comments:

Post a Comment