STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Some people might like to put their credit histories under an assumed name. We've been talking all this week about American debts. We've heard about delinquent auto loans and troubled stores. We've heard about the hard sell by lenders, and we've heard the story of Kim Love, who ran up $21,000 on her credit cards.
Ms. KIM LOVE: I sat my husband and I said, listen, we have to get this in order because I will make up a budget and I would show him the budget and then he would say, oh, we can't pay that one, we can't pay that one, we can't pay that one.
INSKEEP: That story is a sign of widespread trouble for our next guest, Mark Zandi, chief economist with MoodysEconomy.com.
Is there anything unusual if you go back five years, ten years, 20 years, about someone like Kim Love?
Mr. MARK ZANDI (MoodysEconomy.com): Well, it's much more prevalent today. If you go back 25 years ago, the debt problem was much smaller, fewer households had credit cards and other debt. Today, many households do and some households are very, very indebted and struggling.
INSKEEP: Is it larger than it even was a year ago, say?
Mr. ZANDI: Yes, I think so. People have been taking on more debt. And more importantly, many people with mortgages have seen their mortgage payments rise because of adjustable rate mortgages. So their debt burden, the proportion of their income they're having to devote to paying on debt, has risen.
INSKEEP: Now, the next thing as we talk about debt, Mark Zandi, would be this. We've seen the way that mortgages were bundled and sold as securities and that caused problems that reverberated throughout the entire financial markets. Have credit card debts been bundled and sold as securities in exactly the same way?
Mr. ZANDI: Almost all household debt - credit cards, student loans, auto loans, and of course mortgages - have been bundled up, securitized, sold to investors across the globe. The problems in the securities market with regard to credit cards has been much less pronounced. It really hasn't been much of an issue.
It's really been focused on things like mortgages and to a lesser degree student loans.
INSKEEP: Okay. Is that then another disaster waiting to happen?
Mr. ZANDI: I don't think so. The credit card industry went through something like what the mortgage industry is going through now about ten years ago. But they were chastened by that; they've been less aggressive as a result of all of that. They do have problems - people are going delinquent on their cards to a greater degree than they were a year ago. But in the grand scheme of things, delinquency rates are quite low.
INSKEEP: Is this getting to the point where you would say that there are two classes in America right now? People who are in trouble with debt and people who aren't?
Mr. ZANDI: I think there really are two different kinds of households out there. One household - generally lower-income households - makes less than the median income, which is about $50,000 a year. They are very indebted. They've been borrowing very aggressively over the past 20, 25 years. And they're the folks that are going into foreclosure and bankruptcy, and if not, struggling to make those debt payments.
And then the other half of households, higher-income households, you know, they're in quite good shape financially. If they do have a loan, it's probably a fixed rate mortgage loan. Other than that, they really don't have any other debt. So it really is, I think, a story of two different households.
INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask a basic question there, Mark Zandi. Have we been using debt to mask a basic problem with the American economy? Most people's incomes are stagnant and yet the cost of basic things, whether it's housing or education for your kids, keeps going up and up and up and people have responded by borrowing more and more and more.
Mr. ZANDI: Yeah, I think it does mask a fundamental problem, particularly among those half of households that have lower incomes. They have been under a lot of pressure over the years. The jobs that they had in manufacturing have been lost and they're competing against labor all across the world and suffering as a result.
They use debt to try to supplement their incomes and now they can't and so we're going to have to start facing up to some of these deeper, broader problems.
INSKEEP: Would you expect that credit cards companies and other kinds of lenders are going to make it harder and harder for borrowers to spend a little beyond their means if they're in that situation we just described?
Mr. ZANDI: I think they are going to have to be more careful and targeted in who they extend credit to. They already are to some degree. For example, credit card lenders are not mailing in to places like California and Florida, where the housing market is under pressure and house prices are falling and borrowers are under a lot of stress.
So lenders are going to be much more targeted in who they extend credit to, how much credit they extend to everybody, and under what terms.
INSKEEP: And does that mean a fundamentally different situation for those people you describe making less than $50,000 a year and already under great pressure?
Mr. ZANDI: Yeah, it's just going to be a lot more difficult for those folks to get credit and certainly get a lot of credit and credit under reasonably good terms. Because lenders do know that it's going to be much more difficult to get their money back or at least get it back in a timely way.
INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by.
Mr. ZANDI: Thanks.
INSKEEP: That's Mark Zandi, chief economist with MoodysEconomy.com. He is also an economic advisor to John McCain's presidential campaign.
You can hear other conversations in our series on America's debt crisis at NPR.org.
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