Thursday, July 07, 2011

NYT: Fewer Americans File for Bankruptcy as Debt Woes Ease

By TARA SIEGEL BERNARD

After steadily climbing for several years, the number of Americans filing for bankruptcy is on the decline, though that is not necessarily an indicator of an improving economy.

The number of bankruptcy filings in June was 120,623, or an average of 5,483 a day, a drop of 6.2 percent from May, when filings totaled 122,775, or 5,846 a day, according to a report from Epiq Systems, which tracks bankruptcy filings. There was one additional day to file in June compared with May. Average daily filings are down nearly 10 percent from June of last year.

Though economic factors like foreclosures and unemployment play a role in bankruptcy, over the long run, the filing rate tends to be more closely tethered to the amount of outstanding consumer debt.

Access to credit, however, can influence the bankruptcy rate over the shorter term: as lenders tighten their standards, filings tend to rise because struggling consumers can no longer rely on credit cards or other loans to get them through a rough period. But when more new loans are being made, filings tend to fall — at least for a while.

“There is a lot of mythology about what drives bankruptcy rates,” said Robert M. Lawless, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law who specializes in bankruptcy. “But consumer credit appears to be the most significant indicator.”

Over all, he said he expected filings to decline 5 to 10 percent this year, leveling off at about 1.46 million, largely because consumers have slightly more access to credit now than in recent years. But he also said that consumers had taken on less debt in the past three years, which means there is less debt to discharge and fewer incentives to file bankruptcy.

That estimate compares with about 1.56 million bankruptcy filings in 2010 and nearly 1.45 million in 2009. Filings surpassed two million in 2005, when many people rushed to declare bankruptcy before a new law went into effect that made it more difficult, and significantly more expensive, to file.

There have been 731,237 filings this year. “If they keep going the way they were,” Professor Lawless said, “bankruptcy filings will keep going down a little bit.”

So far this year, the vast majority of the bankruptcy cases — nearly 70 percent — were Chapter 7 filings, which provide individuals with the proverbial “fresh start” because their debts are forgiven. (To qualify, filers need to pass a means test to determine whether they are unable to repay their debts.)

In contrast, a Chapter 13 filing requires individuals to use their disposable income to pay back a portion of their debts through a three- or five-year repayment plan. Some people choose Chapter 13 because it allows them to save their primary homes from foreclosure, though they are required to catch up on their mortgage payments. Slightly more than 27 percent were Chapter 13 filings. (The remainder were mostly commercial filings.) The overall split between Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 filings is consistent with last year’s ratio.

While the overall number of bankruptcy filings was down last month, there were variations from state to state. For instance, filings in Georgia rose 13 percent and were up 33 percent in Delaware, compared with May. But filings in Wyoming fell 30 percent, in South Dakota 21 percent, in West Virginia 18 percent and in Wisconsin 17 percent.

In both New York and New Jersey, the number of bankruptcy cases dropped by 5 percent.

Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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