With unemployment high and personal wealth diminished, how was it that strapped consumers were paying down their credit card debt last year? It turns out they probably weren't.
The bulk of 2009's drop in credit card debt instead came because banks were forced to write off loans consumers failed to pay, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data.
Loans are typically charged off by banks once they're 180 days past due, under the assumption that the debt won't be repaid.
In 2009, banks wrote off a record $83.27 billion in credit card debt. A study by consumer credit research site CardHub.com found that accounts for the bulk of the $93.2-billion drop in consumer card balances reported by the Fed for last year.
"If you just look at the numbers, you think, 'Oh my goodness, there was a big decrease in credit card debt,' " said Odysseas Papadimitriou, CardHub's founder and chief executive.
But he said it didn't add up that consumers could make such a big dent in debt while under the financial pressure Americans faced last year.
The Federal Reserve's reports on outstanding consumer loans don't tease out the amount charged off by banks. By that measure, credit card borrowing fell for 16 straight months through January, suggesting consumers have been chipping away at balances and spending less.
The only time consumers truly paid down their debt was in the first quarter of last year, the CardHub.com study finds. During those three months, card balances fell by $46.9 billion, excluding the $17.59 billion that banks wrote off.
The charge-off rate on credit card loans spiked dramatically in the downturn, hitting a record 10.1 percent in the third quarter of 2009. The rate eased to 9.4 percent for the year's final three months. By comparison, the rate was 4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006, a year before the downturn began.