When Debtors Decide to Default

Corey Calabrese in The New York Times, July 26, 2009

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Melissa Birks is being stalked. Her cellphone keeps ringing, always from a caller marked “unknown.” She says she knows it is her credit card company wondering why she stopped making payments. Ms. Birks, who owes $28,830, has nothing to say.

Those on the front lines of the debt industry say there is a small but increasingly noticeable group of strapped consumers who, like Ms. Birks, are deciding they will simply stop paying. After loading up on debt eagerly provided by the card companies during the boom times, these people now find themselves trapped in an endless cycle where they are charged interest on interest and fees upon fees while the lenders get government bailouts.

They are upset — at the unyielding banks and often at their free-spending selves — and are pre-emptively defaulting. They could continue to pay for a while longer but instead are walking away. “You reach a point where you embrace the darkness of default,” said Adam Levin, chairman of the financial products Web site Credit.com.

The lending industry term for these people is “ruthless defaulters.” In a miserable economy where paychecks, savings and expectations are all diminished, their numbers will surely grow.

“They’ve done the math on their account and they’re very angry,” said Corey Calabrese, a Fordham Law student who is an administrator of the school’s walk-in clinic for debtors at Manhattan Civil Court. Public sentiment is on their side, she added: “For the first time, Americans are no longer blaming the borrower but are looking at the credit card companies.”

(That’s certainly true in the mortgage crisis. According to a Quinnipiac University poll in February, 62 percent of those polled blamed lenders “who loaned the money to people who may not be able to pay it back.” Only a quarter blamed homeowners.)

The deteriorating relationship between Americans and their creditors has not yet reached the level of Shays’ Rebellion, the 1786 uprising by poor farmers in western Massachusetts during a recession. But the basic issues are strikingly similar, suggesting an eternal tension between creditor and consumer.

Boston merchants, who were suffering themselves, aggressively sought payment from their customers. When the folks could not pay, which was often, they were jailed. The incensed farmers sought “reforms that would permit repayment on less destructive terms,” writes Bruce H. Mann in “Republic of Debtors,” a history of bankruptcy in early America. “Creditors replied with lectures on frugality, luxury, virtue and the sanctity of obligations.”

Shays’ Rebellion provoked mixed reactions, then and now. Were the rebels trying to remedy grievous wrongs in the spirit of the Revolutionary War, or were they threatening public order and the fledgling state — acting as terrorists, in the modern parlance? Shays’ followers were quickly arrested and quickly pardoned, although two were hanged.

Ruthless defaulters today face different perils. Delinquency destroys credit scores, can prompt a lawsuit and guarantees a very large number of hostile calls from collection agencies.

Still, all that can seem the better alternative. Like many who default, Ms. Birks first asked her credit card company to lower her 19 percent interest rate. No dice, Bank of America responded. After she tried to get the bank’s attention by skipping a payment, it immediately raised her rate to 25 percent. As Ms. Birks’ debt swelled, so did a sense of injustice mingled with helplessness.

Bank of America has its hands full, with a June default rate of 13.8 percent, up from 12.5 percent in May. The other major credit card companies are in a similar fix. Estimates of the total industry losses are over $100 billion for the current recession.

Collectors are noticing a shift not only in ability but in willingness to pay. “With all the bailouts the government is giving everyone, no one has any personal accountability about their own debts,” said Roger Knauf, who runs a trade group of debt-buying firms.

Many of today’s debtors were maxed out long before the recession. Much of this debt was of course in the form of junky mortgages on wildly overpriced houses, and it was here that people first began to rebel.

Countrywide Financial, the country’s biggest and most aggressive lender, surveyed its customers about why they were defaulting in the summer of 2007. One of the leading reasons was “low regard for property ownership.” In other words, people concluded that owning these houses was a bad deal.

That people would intentionally default on loans they never should have gotten in the first place took lenders by surprise. “I’m astonished that people would walk away from their homes,” Bank of America chief executive Kenneth Lewis said in late 2007.

Nineteen months later, walking away from mortgages is widespread if impossible to quantify, and no cause for embarrassment. Rather the opposite: it shows savviness. “I’ll walk away before I take a loss,” a Dallas financier recently boasted to Barron’s magazine about his efforts to sell his $6 million vacation estate.

With credit cards, this type of chest-pounding seems less evident, at least so far. Ms. Birks, 43, readily admits that no one forced her to use her cards. “Some people are good with money,” she said. “I was stupid.”

Still, just about everyone made mistakes during the boom — regulators, Congress, Wall Street. If Bank of America got a bailout for making bad loans, Ms. Birks figured, she deserved a bailout for accepting them.

“You have to start looking at the future,” says Ms. Birks, who has been a writer and editor for various publications. “I already feel horrible because I can’t find a good job.” She earns $15 an hour as a copy editor for a magazine and does other part-time work.

In previous downturns, Ms. Birks’ only recourse would have been a debt management plan, where she would restructure her payments with the help of a counselor, or bankruptcy. Now there is a third option: debt settlement. This means going on strike until the lender accepts a partial payment.

Ms. Birks asked Bank of America about a settlement this spring. Since her account was up to date, she was told she didn’t qualify. She stopped paying, the bank started calling.

When Bank of America finally got her on the phone, it agreed for the first time to drastically reduce her interest rate. She did not take the deal, but considered it progress.