Crystal Ball Department: Bankruptcy Filings to Rise in a Few Years


Good times in the economy mean goods times a few years later for bankruptcy professionals who deal with consumer cases.  We saw this from the mid-1990s through the 2000s. The last big party in the bankruptcy world was in 2010 (1.5 million non-business cases filed!), a few years after the end of the last debt binge came to a crashing halt starting in 2007.  The reverse is also true.  Bad times in the economy make for fewer bankruptcy filings a few years later, which is what we have been seeing lately.

Those of us who blog on Credit Slips get frequent calls from reporters asking about bankruptcy filing statistics, specifically:  what do they mean?  Filings, which are mostly consumer filings, have gone down steadily for two years now, so it gets hard to come up with anything new to say, as Bob Lawless recently wrote here.

When filings go down, reporters new to the bankruptcy beat often think that means the economy must be getting better. Wrong. What drives bankruptcy filings is debt.  Decreases in debt are followed a few years later by decreases in bankruptcy, and increases in debt are followed by increases in bankruptcy.  The Great Recession that started in 2007 resulted in a great decline in household debt due to a combination of reduced access to credit and consumers voluntarily cutting back on debt-driven spending because of a lack of consumer confidence.

It’s so old hat to talk about the continuing decline in bankruptcy filings, produced by a long process of household deleveraging (meaning taking on less debt and instead paying off old debt), that I’m going out on a limb with a prediction. We may finally be seeing signs of a reversal in progress—consumer confidence going up, which should drive up debt volume, and presto chango, we’ll see more bankruptcy in a few years. Bankruptcy attorneys, take heart: recovery will mean a return to your good times, too, but a few years hence. 

What are the signs? After rising two months in a row, consumer confidence is the highest it has been since February of 2008, just after the beginning of the Great Recession.   Because consumer spending is the single biggest driver of economic activity, growing consumer confidence is closely watched as an indicator of economic expansion.  Confidence is still low compared to levels in good economic times, but the trend line is up.   On the other hand, superstorm Sandy may shake consumer confidence in the East in the short term, especially among those who lost hours on the job.  But soon Sandy is bound to drive huge spending on reconstruction, and some of that will be with borrowed money.

I certainly don't think it is a good thing that growth of our economy depends on debt-driven consumer spending.  But as Walter Cronkite signed off every night, often with sardonic intent, "That's the way it is."

In addition to consumer demand, there’s another component to recovery: credit supply.  There are signs of upward movement there along with in demand, seen in nonmortgage credit: household debt increased in the second quarter of this year at the highest rate since the beginning of 2008.  See here.  Mortgage credit is still tight, but overall access to credit (aka debt) seems to be up.

Once full steam recovery kicks in, with credit supply meeting demand, bankruptcy filings will be up again, too—in a few years.  In 2016 or 2017, the bankruptcy world may be partying like it's 2010.