Banking & Finance

Americans Face Credit Score Destruction in the COVID-19 Recession

It’s bad enough to lose a job and not have another job ready to go to. It’s also bad enough that the rent or mortgage is due and those car payment notices keep coming in the mail. The credit card bills keep coming like clockwork. A large portion of Americans are dealing with the chaos by skipping many of their bill payments.

A credit score can determine whether a job applicant is deemed financially stable or fit enough for a job. Credit scores are also the key barometer used to determine future creditworthiness when it comes time to get a new credit card, apply to rent a place or take on a mortgage, buy a car and so on. The instant recession from COVID-19 has put countless millions of Americans in a bad position so fast that they just did not have time to prepare for the recession, being locked down at home and unable to find any work.

According to the latest monthly estimates from TransUnion, there were almost 15 million credit cards in some form of financial hardship programs. These are typically payment deferral plans that allow credit card holders to skip or make reduced payments. While this represents about 3% of the outstanding accounts tracked, April was really just the first entire month that the average American worker was in lock-down mode.

Almost 3 million auto loans were also in hardship programs with deferrals or reduced payments, and that is nearly 3.5% of the car loans tracked by TransUnion.

Note that a year ago only 0.5% of auto loans and 0.03% of credit card accounts were in hardship programs.

Mortgage deferrals were also through the roof. TransUnion’s monthly data showed that the mortgage hardship programs saw more than a tenfold spike to 5.0% in April from 0.48% in March and the same 0.48% rate a year ago.

Personal loans in hardship programs more than doubled in just a month and rose more than tenfold from a year earlier. The April personal loan rate in financial hardship programs was 3.58%, up from 1.56% a month earlier and up from 0.3% a year ago.

There may be some good news within the bad news here. TransUnion noted that serious delinquency rates were mostly stable between April 2019 and April 2020, and the total delinquencies rates actually dropped between March 2020 and April 2020. Another positive was that, on average, consumers are paying down credit card balances. The average consumer credit card balance fell to $5,437 in April of 2020 from $5,645 in March. That said, the average is obviously being skewed by those who wanted to and were able to pay down balances to lower their debt and also by reduced spending measures from most of the country during hard times.

While these numbers are bad, they could have been a lot worse. Financial aid from the government, unemployment benefits, severances, tax delays and businesses receiving their Paycheck Protection Program loans to keep employees paid has helped to keep these numbers lower.

Borrowers do need to understand that some lenders may offer some assistance and deferrals, but some lenders and creditors may still count these as “negative events” when it comes to credit score measures. Many lenders and potential employers are likely to be a tad more lenient and understanding when it comes to evaluating an application in the aftermath of the coronavirus recession because it hit tens of millions of people suddenly and almost equally.

While there may be some lenience and forgiveness that has not been there before, there is a simple challenge here. Two potential borrowers or job applicants come in and they are virtually identical in every demographic aspect and every other qualification, but one has maintained a credit score above 800 throughout the recession while one has seen their credit score fall drastically. Guess which one gets hired or approved?

April was the first month that the bad economic numbers went off the charts. May and June could be even worse, even with all states now seeing some form of reopening their economies. The question to ask is what happens over the summer when so many seasonal factors, from family vacations, home buying, home remodeling to other traditional events, face the greatest challenge either in a decade or since the 1930s.