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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 14, 2010

Drop in credit card debt traced to '09 charge-offs

USA Today

Americans cut more than $93 billion in credit card debt from 2008 to 2009. Good news, right?

It's not what it seems, according to an analysis of federal data by www.CardHub.com, a credit card comparison Web site.

Rather than turning wholly frugal, consumers instead fell further behind on bills in 2009, causing a surge in debt charge-offs, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com.

Consumer debt related to credit cards fell from $969.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008 to $876.1 billion in the fourth quarter of last year. "When consumers are paying back more, that's a sign of great financial health," Papadi-mitriou says.

But his analysis shows that in the third quarter of last year, bank charge-offs reached their highest rate since 1985. Charge-offs occur when consumers declare bankruptcy or when their credit card debt is 180 days past due.

The study found that 90 percent of the $93.2 billion decrease in credit card debt was attributable to bad debt being written off the books. Only about $10 billion was related to consumer payoffs, and most of that occurred in the first quarter of last year.

The average U.S. household has nine credit cards. Credit card use and card companies' practices have been under scrutiny since the recession began.