Bankruptcies reversed course and fell in 2011, but it’s not just due to debt aversion. We may just be running out of people who benefit from filing
Bankruptcy filings dropped a steep 12 percent in 2011, and while some experts attribute it to more cautious consumer spending and a decline in credit card debt, others say that we’re just running out of people who can benefit from filing.
Fewer than 1.37 million bankruptcy filings were recorded in 2011 for the 50 states and District of Columbia, according to data from Epiq Systems, compared to almost 1.55 million the previous year.
“It mimics consumer spending,” says Howard Dvorkin, founder of the nonprofit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. “The whole debt world has been turned on its head over the last 18 months.”
For 2011, Utah was the only state that saw an increase in bankruptcy filings, climbing a modest 1 percent.
Meanwhile, states with high bankruptcy rates in previous years saw healthy declines in new filings. In Nevada, they fell 19 percent from 2010 to 2011; in Florida, they dropped 16 percent; and California saw an 8 percent decline.
But the drop in filings may be also be influenced by the fact there are only so many people who can benefit from bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy was designed as a way to give “well-meaning people a fresh start,” says David Epstein, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Bankruptcy Institute. “In today’s economy, if you don’t have a job, bankruptcy doesn’t really give you a fresh start.”
In today’s economy, if you don’t have a job, bankruptcy doesn’t really give you a fresh start.
|— David Epstein|
Law professor, University of Richmond
Although the unemployment rate peaked at 10.6 in January 2010, and was down to 8.5 percent in December, that’s still a far cry from the pre-recession 2008 rate of about 5 percent.
Recovery also has been hampered by the length of time people have been unemployed. In December, almost 5.6 million workers had been unemployed for at least 27 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Often these consumers have tapped out their resources, “so there’s nothing to take” and no point in filing for bankruptcy, says David Leibowitz, a bankruptcy attorney and founder of Lakelaw in Waukegan, Ill.
Nevada leads per-capita filings
Nevada still leads the country with the most per-capita bankruptcy filings, chalking up nearly 9 for every 1,000 residents. But that’s down from 11.1 for every 1,000 residents in 2010.
Georgia and Tennessee were second and third, respectively, with more than 7 filings for every 1,000 residents.
Cumulatively, California still had the most filings, with more than 234,000 in 2011, yet that’s down more than 20,000 from the previous year.
Florida still places second, with more than 92,000 filings, down from more than 110,000 in 2010. Georgia and Illinois were the only other states with more than 70,000 filings in 2011.
Card debt resurging
Credit card debt and bankruptcies have also moved in opposite directions since the recession. As the recession hit in 2008 and a bad economy lingered in 2009 and 2010, bankruptcies rose. Credit card debt fell sharply during that same period, from a peak of $975.5 billion in 2008 down to $800.5 billion at the end of 2010.
Now the two have both reversed course. Bankruptcy filings fell by about 182,000 in 2011 compared to 2010. Credit card debt, meanwhile, has started to pick up again: The Federal Reserve’s report on consumer credit shows credit card spending jumped almost 9 percent in November, to a total of $798.3 billion.
Student loans also are on the rise — they now surpass credit card debt, reaching $845 billion in the second quarter of 2011, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. With few exceptions, “people burdened by educational loans don’t get any help from bankruptcy,” Epstein says. Student loans are difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.
The decline in filings, Epstein says, doesn’t necessarily signal that the economy is making a dramatic turnaround. Instead, it may stem from “a growing realization that bankruptcy doesn’t fix my problems” if someone is unemployed, faces a catastrophic illness or is burdened by student loans.
And many of those who can benefit from filing for bankruptcy have already done so, Dvorkin says.
Bankruptcy filings surged in 2005 to about 2 million, driven by the introduction of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. Under the law, higher filing fees, a means test for eligibility, required counseling programs and an eight-year moratorium before a person can file again were implemented.
The changes prompted many consumers to file before the law took effect, and that filing boom, combined with the time it took attorneys to adjust to the new act, pushed filings down to 617,000 in 2006. By 2007, filings had passed 850,000, and they continued to soar — until 2011.
2012 outlook cloudy
The experts are torn as to what filings will look like in 2012.
On the upside, the unemployment rate has fallen and consumer confidence is on the rise. That has been accompanied by an increase in the number of credit card solicitations and the volume of credit card borrowing.
Holiday spending also has surged. Although final figures haven’t been released, the National Retail Federation predicted sales would be up 3.8 percent over last year, reaching $469.1 billion. Online sales were up 15 percent, to $37.2 billion, the analytics firm comScore reported.
Rick Bialobrzeski, director of business development and communications at the nonprofit GreenPath Debt Solutions, isn’t sure if the spending increase means people are more confident about their personal financial situations so they’re spending more, or if they’ve resumed spending beyond their means.
Another question mark hanging over the horizon is foreclosures. Activity bogged down in late 2010 with the controversy over robo-signing, allowing many people to remain in their homes.
Bialobrzeski says that in the past some people would file for bankruptcy in an attempt to keep their homes. But he’s not sure how big a motivator that is today, with so many borrowers underwater on their mortgages. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”
See related: Personal bankruptcies rose 8 percent in 2010, What to say when you can’t pay