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A Huge Economic Red Flag Looms Larger

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A Huge Economic Red Flag Looms Larger

Since early last year, The Juice has been following the story on consumer debt, particularly credit card debt. We still think there’s trouble on the horizon. As in, the credit card debt bubble might be about to burst. We keep you updated over time because it’s not the type of bubble that’ll burst overnight. It builds and builds until a large enough to matter segment of our consumer economy breaks. 

In today’s Juice, we look back tracing the data to where we stand today. It’s not a pretty picture. 

Last April – that’s 2022 – we wrote about revolving credit (mainly credit card debt) increasing 20.9% annually. Then in May – also 2022 – we reported on a 21.4% year-over-year increase. 

At the time, some observers tried to spin a bright side. It was just pent-up spending from the pandemic. Delinquencies were just fine. So that spending was healthy because, apparently, consumers were using credit cards, but paying their bills on time. 

The Juice never bought this line of thinking. We chalked it up to dwindling pandemic savings forcing people to turn to credit to pay for necessities and/or maintain their desired standard of living. As inflation took hold and persisted – as it does to this day – it became clear we were onto something. Credit cards started serving as a lifeline for some cash-strapped consumers struggling to make ends meet amid the rising cost of seemingly everything. 

Just last month – 2023 now – we warned:

While the banks might be fine, some cash-strapped and credit-abusing consumers clearly are not. The idea that JPM is building reserves to cushion themselves against bad loans amid rapidly increasing charge-offs tells you all you need to know. Similar story at Bank of America (BAC), who also increased reserves. Across the nation’s four biggest banks, consumer loan charge-offs increased 73% in Q1, as they wrote off $3.4 billion in bad debt during the first three months of the year. 

Never believe a bank when it tells you everything is fine. 

As big banks benefit from high-interest rates (by, in part, not increasing the interest they pay on deposit accounts in a meaningful way), they’re building war chests. 

War chests for what? To guard against the very thing they said was under control in 2022. Delinquencies and subsequent bad debt. Two metrics that continue to rise at mega banks such as Bank of America (BAC) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM). Slowly but surely people are falling behind on their credit card bills. 

And the latest data from the Federal Reserve shows that we’ve hit another record on revolving debt. It grew by $17.6 billion in March, hitting an all-time high of just under $1.24 trillion.

The spending isn’t stopping even as banks take steps to guard against more debt going delinquent and potentially going outright bad. 

Draw your own conclusions as to where we might be headed. 


The Bottom Line: If you’re doing well financially, this might not matter to you. However, if you or someone you know is charging items on credit cards – needs or wants – it might be time to reassess your or your friend’s situation. 

Step one: Stop using credit cards. 

Step two: Eliminate all unnecessary spending for at least a few weeks to a few months. 

Step three: Find less expensive alternatives on your needs, such as buying private label products over brand names at the grocery store. 

Step four: Do likewise on your discretionary spending. Maybe it’s time to hit up the taco truck rather than a $75 brunch after your Saturday morning hike. 

Step five: Pay down that debt and build an emergency fund to cover the potentially leaner times that might lie ahead. 

If we’re – and you’re wrong – it’s all good. 

It’s almost always a good move to reassess spending, stop racking up debt and build your own war chest (like those banks) during uncertain times.

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