Coronavirus Was Supposed to Drive Bankruptcies Higher. The Opposite Happened.

The Wall Street Journal - March 29, 2021


The number of people seeking bankruptcy fell sharply during the pandemic as government aid propped up income and staved off housing and student-loan obligations.

Bankruptcy filings by consumers under chapter 7 were down 22% last year compared with 2019, while individual filings under chapter 13 fell 46%, according to Epiq data. After holding above 50,000 filings a month in 2019 and in the first quarter of 2020, bankruptcy filings have remained below 40,000 a month since last March when the pandemic hit.

By contrast, commercial bankruptcy filings rose 29%, with more than 7,100 businesses seeking chapter 11 protection last year, according to Epiq.

The downward trend in personal bankruptcies bucks predictions by analysts and economists that disruptions from Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions early in the pandemic would lead to a sharp increase in filings.

Economists and bankruptcy lawyers say federal suspensions of evictions, home foreclosures and student-loan obligations have helped limit bankruptcies—though they worry bankruptcy rates could go up after aid ends. Household spending also dropped as people stayed home, canceled travel and socially distanced to avoid the coronavirus. Several rounds of government aid padded incomes with direct payments to households and enhanced unemployment benefits. The personal saving rate rose.

Elaine Robertson, a rehabilitation counselor in Aynor, S.C., said she considered filing for bankruptcy to deal with the roughly $10,000 of credit-card debt she accumulated when rent, utility and legal bills piled up after her separation in 2018.

But government stimulus checks issued last year and the moratorium on student-loan payments gave her breathing room to negotiate with debt collectors that sued her in recent months, she said. Now Ms. Robertson, 60 years old, is living in cheaper housing and thinks she may not have to go the bankruptcy route.

“I can use that money towards some of these debts and it helps in my negotiating process,” she said. “That’s going to help me get my debt paid.”

Bankruptcy filings, a last resort for consumers in dire straits, typically follow financial distress from a divorce, medical emergency or unemployment by 12 to 18 months. People often file for bankruptcy when faced with immediate home foreclosure, eviction or creditor lawsuits that have led to wages being garnished. Filing for bankruptcy halts wage garnishments, vehicle repossessions and property foreclosures.

Filings also usually pick up within three months after a rise in the unemployment rate, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Brigham Young University and Harvard Business School. Unemployment jumped to 14.8% last April, up from 3.5% ahead of the pandemic, and was 6.2% this February.

The federal moratorium on evictions has helped Sara Smith, who lost her job as an IT operations manager in San Diego shortly before the pandemic started. She moved to Rochester, N.Y., where she has family, and has fallen behind on rent. She also is struggling with some $30,000 in credit-card and medical debts.

“Everything feels stacked against you in this situation,” Ms. Smith, 46, said. Despite the government measures to help, she wants to file for bankruptcy to have a fresh start. “I wish I’d done it sooner. All that enhanced money [from unemployment benefits], I could have had as a savings account now,” she said.

Most people filing for bankruptcy do so under chapter 7, which allows them to clear unsecured obligations, such as credit-card debt, but in many cases forces them to give up assets such as homes, cars or retirement savings in the process. Chapter 13 is a more expensive type of bankruptcy that allows borrowers to keep homes and other assets.

The year-over-year drop in bankruptcy filings between January and September 2020 was steeper among homeowners than for those who don’t own property, said Jialan Wang, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Economists say the government measures could only temporarily lower the bankruptcy rate. Some expect filings to pick up later this year or next, as temporary relief expires and financial bills incurred during the pandemic come due.

“There’s a serious case to be made that this is hiding a deeper problem and in the future people have to pay a multiple of the debt they weren’t able to maintain before the pandemic,” said Jaromir Nosal, a Boston College economist focusing on household finance.

Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at accounting and consulting firm RSM US LLP, said financial firepower provided by government stimulus—the latest aid package was $1.9 trillion—and the bridge provided by moratoria could limit future financial stress in households and its impact on the overall economy.

“We’re really talking about a forbearance issue,” Mr. Brusuelas said. “It’s in no one’s interest to foreclose on homes and autos after a public health crisis.”

For now, government moratoria continue to provide a cushion for people struggling to pay bills. Earlier this year, the government extended a pause on evictions to at least the end of March and a reprieve from student-loan payments to at least October.

Under the Cares Act, borrowers with government-backed mortgages can enter forbearance plans that add overdue payments to loans at zero interest. Some private lenders offer similar forbearances on mortgages as well as credit cards and auto loans, according to Melinda Opperman, president of Credit.org, a nonprofit credit counseling organization.

About 8% of U.S. mortgage borrowers, or seven million, entered forbearance during the pandemic, according to a research paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. In contrast with the period after the 2008 financial crisis, this time the forbearance programs are available to anyone who requests them rather than only to those who show need, according to the paper by the Philadelphia Fed.

A total of three million borrowers remained in forbearance, and two million of those borrowers were making no payments on their home mortgages as of the end of 2020, according to CoreLogic.

Higher employment as the economy recovers may give more people a reason to file for bankruptcy in the future because creditors can sue to garnish wages, bankruptcy experts said.

Income from stimulus checks and unemployment assistance—types of income protected from garnishment—also is expected to diminish as relief measures phase out.

“We need to start turning our attention to what is going to happen when America reopens and moratoria end,” said Rohan Pavuluri, CEO and co-founder of Upsolve, an online platform to help low-income families navigate financial distress.



By Soma Biswas and Harriet Torry

Write to Soma Biswas at soma.biswas@wsj.com and Harriet Torry at harriet.torry@wsj.com

Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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