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Credit Card Defaults--Piggybacked Underwriting

posted by Adam Levitin

If you want to get a window on why credit card defaults are soaring, look at credit card underwriting.  There is virtually no income verification in the card industry--all loans are stated income loans (a/k/a liar loans), and we know how well that worked for mortgages (and there's more temptation to lie about a card as a default won't cost you the house). 

The card industry does do some ersatz income verification, however, using credit reports,but this might only exacerbate underwriting problems.  Credit reports only list debts, not income, but card issuers are able to piggyback off the underwriting of lenders that do income verification.  Thus card lenders will look at mortgage debt on credit reports to gauge income levels.  If you have/had a large mortgage, that implies a large income. 

The problem with this style of underwriting is that it relied on mortgages being thoroughly underwritten both in terms of income verification and in terms of mortgage-debt-to-income ratios.  As mortgage lending standards went out the door, so too did card lending standards.  Card issuers ceased to get the benefit of mortgage lenders' income verification and got squeezed as mortgage debt gobbled up an increasing share of borrowers' income. 

To be sure, there are other factors now pushing up credit card defaults to historic levels, unemployment being chief among them and the inability to refinance credit card debt by using home equity, but what amazes me is that even now that we know that mortgages size is a completely unreliable indicator of repayment ability, leading card issuers are still piggybacking off of mortgage underwriting.

(As an aside, there has long been internal card industry piggybacking, such as Neiman Marcus issuing cards to anyone with an Amex card on the theory that if you could get an Amex--in the good old days--you were a good credit risk.) 


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