While many consumers became a bit more gun-shy about taking on debt during and following the recession, new indicators show that it's lender standards, and not a lingering unwillingness to borrow, that still restricts consumer credit.
There is evidence to suggest that in the wake of the recession, consumers are once again interested in taking on different kinds of debt, but are not always being allowed to do so, according to a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Lender standards remain unnaturally tight even as the economy has improved considerably. However, necessary qualifications may be an arbitrary distinction, as interest in borrowing for consumers in the same regions has been more or less rising for some time, those who have lower credit ratings as a result of previous defaults have found themselves locked out.
U.S. household debt has dipped 7 percent - close to $1 trillion - since 2008, and much of that was the result of borrowers defaulting on their home loans during the housing market collapse, the report said. Mortgage debt makes up about 70 percent of the roughly $12 trillion dollars in outstanding credit, meaning that the significant declines seen in borrowing were likely the result of that dip.
But those who defaulted, often through little fault of their own, have usually found themselves locked out of all types of borrowing since doing so, the report said. Because they are considered "subprime" borrowers, lenders view them as far larger risks and therefore will not extend them any new credit.
However, the study also found the designation of what constitutes a subprime credit rating - usually about 650 - as "arbitrary," the report said. The difference in demand for new credit between prime and subprime borrowers is likely not as pronounced as the difference in their ability to actually access this type of financing.
"[B]orrowers who defaulted on mortgages tended to experience much larger reductions in nonmortgage debt than borrowers who stayed current on mortgages," wrote John Krainer, senior economist for the San Francisco Fed, who conducted the study. "Borrowers with low credit scores experienced larger reductions in nonmortgage debt than borrowers with high credit scores. These results suggest that tighter credit conditions also are probably restricting the flow of credit to consumers. "
Many experts have criticized lenders for keeping credit qualifications too tight since the end of the recession, particularly where the housing market is concerned. The housing market in general has struggled to gain traction even as other economic indicators are picking up steam, and some analysts say that subprime borrowers having access to some amount of funding for home purchases would help to spur an increased recovery. However, lenders remain reticent to extend those with such low qualifications this type of credit because of the large sums of money involved, and the potential losses should a borrower default.