From the NY Times:
For decades, America’s shift from thrift could be summed up in this familiar phrase: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Whether for a car, home, vacation or college degree, the nation’s lenders stood ready to assist.
Companies offered first and second mortgages and home equity lines, marketed credit cards for teenagers and helped college students to amass upward of $100,000 in debt by graduation.
Every age group up to the elderly was the target of sophisticated ad campaigns and direct mail programs. “Live Richly” was a Citibank message. “Life Takes Visa,” proclaims the nation’s largest credit card issuer.
Eliminating negative feelings about indebtedness was the idea behind MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign, the work of McCann-Erickson Worldwide Advertising, which came out in 1997.
“One of the tricks in the credit card business is that people have an inherent guilt with spending,” Jonathan B. Cranin, executive vice president and deputy creative director at the agency, said when the commercials began. “What you want is to have people feel good about their purchases.”
Mortgage lenders took to cold-calling homeowners to persuade them to refinance. Done to reduce borrowers’ monthly payments, serial refinancings allowed lenders to charge thousands of dollars in loan processing fees, including appraisals, credit checks, title searches and document preparation fees.
Not surprisingly, such practices generated dazzling profits for the nation’s financial companies. And since 2005, when the bankruptcy law was changed, the credit card industry has increased its earnings 25 percent, according to a new study by Michael Simkovic, a former James M. Olin fellow in Law and Economics at Harvard Law School.
The “2005 bankruptcy reform benefited credit card companies and hurt their customers,” Mr. Simkovic concluded in his study. He said that even though sponsors of the bankruptcy bill promised that consumers would benefit from lower borrowing costs as delinquent borrowers were held more accountable, the cost of borrowing from credit card companies has actually increased anywhere from 5 percent to 17 percent.
Just two generations ago, America was a nation of mostly thrifty people living within their means, even setting money aside for unforeseen expenses.
Today, Americans carry $2.56 trillion in consumer debt, up 22 percent since 2000 alone, according to the Federal Reserve Board. The average household’s credit card debt is $8,565, up almost 15 percent from 2000.
College debt has more than doubled since 1995. The average student emerges from college carrying $20,000 in educational debt.
Household debt, including mortgages and credit cards, represents 19 percent of household assets, according to the Fed, compared with 13 percent in 1980.
Even as this debt was mounting, incomes stagnated for many Americans. As a result, the percentage of disposable income that consumers must set aside to service their debt — a figure that includes monthly credit card payments, car loans, mortgage interest and principal — has risen to 14.5 percent from 11 percent just 15 years ago.
By contrast, the nation’s savings rate, which exceeded 8 percent of disposable income in 1968, stood at 0.4 percent at the end of the first quarter of this year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
More ominous, as Americans have dug themselves deeper into debt, the value of their assets has started to fall. Mortgage debt stood at $10.5 trillion at the end of last year, more than double the $4.8 trillion just seven years earlier, but home prices that were rising to support increasing levels of debt, like home equity lines of credit, are now dropping.