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Spending Up, While Consumer Debt Drops

Written By:
December 08, 2011 at 11:44 PM

Consumer debt declined during third quarter, while at the same time consumers finally took out their plastic again over the Thanksgiving weekend.

The National Retail Federation reported that Americans spent over $52.4 billion during the Thanksgiving weekend--the highest amount spent in recent years.

ICSC chief economist Mike Niemira says that consumer spending was spurned by retailer discounts. "Clearly, consumers are focused on those bargains," he said. "It's a bit tougher to get shoppers to buy from a year ago.”

Overall revenue increased by 3.2% in November, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The council’s data is based on results reported by 21 national retailers like Macy’s, Target and Wal-Mart.

Terry J. Lundgren, Macy's chairman, president and chief executive issued a statement, "A strong Black Friday punctuated our very positive sales performance throughout November.”

Consumer spending increased at its fastest pace this year, growing at an annual rate of 2.3% during third quarter.

Executive vice president Phil Rist at BIGResearch said, "The appetite for these early openings is only getting stronger among holiday shoppers, and retailers did a great job providing Americans just what they wanted … the ability to shop on Black Friday without having to get out of bed before dawn. Consumers are clearly demonstrating their desire to spend this holiday season, and shopping early and often seems to be their new mantra as they seek the best value for all their holiday purchases."

Debt Decline Fueled Primarily Through Mortgage Balances

Consumer debt was down $60 billion as compared to the previous quarter with household debt totaling $11.66 trillion in the three months ending in September.

Overall consumer credit dropped by 0.6% from second quarter prompted mainly by a decline in mortgage balances, which tumbled from $114 billion or 1.3%.

Economists view reports as a good sign. In a statement, Andrew Haughwout, vice president in the Research and Statistics Group at the New York Fed said, "The decline in outstanding consumer debt reveals that households continue to try and deleverage in the wake of a challenging economic environment and large declines in home values.”

As mortgage balances dropped, credit card inquiries increased. Anthony Karydakis, chief economist at Commerzbank in New York said, “There is a silver lining in all of this. Slowly but steadily, consumers are exploring more normal ways of returning to a more normal pattern when it comes to borrowing habits."

Finding a normal pattern for borrowing, especially in mortgage loan financing, has been a difficult journey for many. While numerous homeowners have been able to refinance without worry, others have been turned down and are trying to find ways to hang onto their home.

While HARP 2.0 will open numerous refinancing opportunities for thousands of homeowners considered to be “underwater” in their mortgage, other avenues have helped borrowers find ways to make payments.

In Richmond, VA the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America sponsored a foreclosure-prevention event aptly named, “Save the Dream.” Hundreds of homeowners attended the multi-day event held over the first weekend in December in an attempt to lower payments and pay down their mortgage loan.

Efforts appear to be working as homeowners left the event, held at the Richmond Convention Center, smiling and relieved. 20-year homeowners Keith and Desiree Bradby were on the brink of foreclosure and were able to lower their payment by $300 a month. Desiree Bradby said, "Merry Christmas. This is the best Christmas gift we could receive.”

Leo and Idalia Delgado attended the event in an effort to get out of a variable-rate loan. After Leo lost his job he was barely able to make mortgage payments, even after dipping into savings. After working with the lenders at the event, the Delgados were able to secure a new mortgage, making payments $400 less than before.

Angeanette Dowles, vice president in the bank's Home Retention Division said, "People think we want these homes," she said. "They don't realize if they lose their property, we lose. It is a benefit to us to modify that loan by any means necessary."

Plus she adds, "it's the right thing to do."

Delinquencies Increase As Homeowners Try to Avoid Foreclosure

A New York Fed survey said that delinquencies increased slightly rising from 9.8% in June to 10% in September, however foreclosures dropped by 7% as compared to second quarter. The report is evidence that homeowners are continuing to try to hang onto their home, even it if means making late payments.

Michael Fratantoni, MBA's vice president of research and economics says that the country still has a long way to go before seeing a typical delinquency pattern. “If you look at the pace of improvement I think we’re three to four years away from the typical pattern of seriously delinquent loans."

Regions with the highest number of delinquencies include Florida at 14.08%, Nevada at 12.39% and New Jersey at 7.60%. Areas with the lowest delinquencies include North Dakota at 1.47%, South Dakota at 2.33% and Nebraska at 2.36%.

Homeowners hoping to avoid foreclosure are turning to other ways to make monthly mortgage payments but still sometimes end up a little short each month. For example, in Florida one of the hardest hit areas, homeowners have become “reluctant” landlords.

Mike Ablack of Coconut Creek, FL said, "I never wanted to be a landlord and play the renting game because it's too much of a hassle."

However, Ablack has found that renting his three-bedroom townhouse, purchased at the height of the real estate boom is the only way he can keep his property out of the foreclosure pipeline. In 2005 Ablack purchased the townhouse for $199,900, put 20% down, but ended up losing all his equity due to a market price free fall.

Today he’s underwater in his mortgage, owing $140,000, while the same units in his community are selling for $75,000. Since he didn’t have the money to pay off the loan, he decided to rent his townhouse while he and his wife lived elsewhere.

Ablack reports that while finding good tenants is not a problem, he finds that making his mortgage payment continues to be a struggle. He says that he’s approximately $200 short each month and has to also cover maintenance expenses.

Another South Florida homeowner who has turned to renting has encountered other problems that have put a strain on his wallet. While Steve Eckelman is not underwater in his mortgage he decided to rent his condo in upscale Lighthouse Point after reconsidering a move to Alaska in 2009.

Unlike Ablack, Eckelman says that he has a difficult time finding qualified renters. The last tenant was told she could have a cat, but instead she had three. Eckelman said that he had to spend $2,000 to remove the odor created by the animals and now his property sits vacant. "It's been incredibly frustrating," he said. "There have been too many problems and not enough tenants."





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