Son of subprime: Credit card debt

Credit card defaults are spiking in the U.S. Does another derivatives debacle lurk beneath the plastic?

Published August 28, 2007 5:16PM (EDT)

Somehow, the global financial system managed to survive while How the World Works was on blissful vacation. But while quailing in fear at thousands of unread e-mails and blog-reader items, one data point about the U.S. economy caught our eye. The Financial Times reported on Monday that "U.S. consumers are defaulting on credit-card payments at a significantly higher rate than last year..." (Thanks to Calculated Risk for the tip.)

Whether or not these new credit woes can be traced to desperate homeowners who can no longer rely on a ready source of cash from refinancings is unclear. The 3.2 percent decline in national home prices registered in the second quarter of 2007 will undoubtedly drive more Americans to rely on their plastic purchasing power to make ends meet. But the question that really begs for follow-up is this: Did Wall Street play the same games with repackaged credit card debt that it did with mortgage debt?

In other words, is there a derivatives house of cards balanced on the ever-popular "slicing and dicing" of credit card debt comparable to the subprime mess that precipitated August's credit crunch?

The FT's Saskia Scholtes quotes analysts from Moody's, one of the Big Three credit rating firms, in support of the assertion that "underwriting standards in the credit-card sector have been more robust than in the mortgage industry." So maybe there isn't a ticking bomb of collaborative debt obligations tied to credit card debt waiting to explode.

But how credible is Moody's? The ratings firms played a key role in facilitating the subprime mess, by slapping gold-plated approval on junk loans. Why should we believe them when they tell us that the credit card industry is above reproach?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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