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Economic News, Data and Analysis

Private Debt

Private Debt. Two views of debt: bankruptcy and debt service. Since 1980, non-business bankruptcies have increased by over 300%. Should we be worried?

Recently, the
House and Senate passed new rules on bankruptcy filings. According to news
reports, the new law would make it harder to erase debt, and would put
in effect new standards to determine repayment plans. Some consumer groups
have opposed the legislation. 

It would probably
come as a surprise to most people, but in each of the last five years over
1 million people have filed for bankruptcy. Since 1980, non-business bankruptcies
have increased by over 300%; and since 1990, bankruptcy filings have increased
by 70%.

While this would
suggest consumers have bitten off more than they can chew, the overall
level of debt service as a fraction of income seems to have been relatively
stable over the past 20 years. So, while it seems as though more and more
people are falling on hard times, on average, people seem to be living within
their means.

Unsustainable
debt: Bankruptcy 

Most people have
some debt – either through credit cards, car loans, student loans, mortgages
or all of the above. When the load gets too great, many people are forced into bankruptcy.
This can happen for many reasons:
debt levels can become too high; income could fall due to a job loss or some
other reason; or other some expenditures may become necessary (such as
a large medical bill).

Conventional wisdom
suggests that when economic times are good, people will, on average, receive
greater incomes and so bankruptcies should become less frequent. However,
while there does seem to be some cyclicality to bankruptcies, there is
also a long-run upward trend in the number of filings. (See graph).

According to the
American Bankruptcy Institute there were over 1.2 million personal bankruptcies
last year. And, according Lundquist Consulting (as reported
in the NYTimes
), bankruptcy filings increased 20 percent in the first
quarter of 2001.

Strategic Bankruptcy?

Behind the debate
on bankruptcy laws lie two competing views on the cause of bankruptcy. 

One view is that
bankruptcy laws give a second change to people who were simply unlucky
and fell on hard times and can no longer repay their loans. The thought
is that if they could repay, they would, and declaring bankruptcy is therefore
only a last option when everything else fails.

On the other extreme
is the view that people strategically use bankruptcy laws to avoid paying
back loans and credit card debt. According to this view, people might intentionally
run up debt and then use the bankruptcy laws to get out of having to pay
back the money.

The enactment of the new law may
give us a valuable “experiment” that we can use to see if people are responding
to the incentives implied by the bankruptcy laws. 

Too much debt? 

The above graph
would suggest that consumers have gotten deeper in to debt over the past
20 years. But is this really the case? 

The Federal Reserve
estimates
the amount of debt payments that households face. The fraction of debt
service relative to personal income shows very little trend over the past
20 years. According to this data – it appears that people are not (on average)
racking up unsustainable levels of debt. 

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Filed under: Economy

Its Official – Money Can Buy Happiness

“Money is better
than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” – Woody Allen

It’s official
– money can buy happiness. 

Two researchers
at the University of Warwick, Andrew
Oswald
and Jonathan
Gardner
, followed 9,000 people over 8 years and asked them to assess
their own degree of “happiness” by having them fill out a survey. (Actually
they just used the British Household Panel Survey which administers a General
Health Questionnaire (GHQ) see below). Among the people
that they followed, many came into a windfall of money – either through
lottery winnings, or an inheritance. 

Using this longitudinal
survey data, the researchers were able to compare people before and after
the windfall and see if they were any happier than before. What they found
was, surprise, surprise, that the level of happiness increased when a person
comes into a large sum of money. In addition, the level of stress decreased
for those people as well.

Using the estimates
from the study, we can actually find out how much it would take to make
an unhappy person happy (at least on average). The study suggests that
it takes approximately $1.5 million to move someone from the unhappy part
of the population to the more happy part. 

Specifically,
the authors estimate that a windfall of $75,000 dollars (actually 50,000
pounds – the study was performed in the UK) improves mental well-being by
between 0.1 and 0.3 standard deviations in the year following the windfall.
The $1.5 million brings someone from the bottom 2% to the top 2%.

Lasting effects?

The study found
that the gains in self reported happiness occur in the year following the
windfall. However, left open is the question of whether the effect is persistent.
It may very well be the case that the increase in wealth has a one-time
effect and people return to their previous level of happiness. 

Perhaps after
a few more years of following the study participants, we’ll know the answer.

Take
the GHQ-12.

Have you recently: A lot more than usual A little more than usual No more than usual Not at all
1. Been able
to concentrate on whatever you are doing?
2. Lost much
sleep over worry?
3. Felt that
you are playing a useful part in things?
4. Felt capable
of making decisions about things?
5. Felt constantly
under strain?
6. Felt you could
not overcome your difficulties?
7. Been able
to enjoy your normal day-to-day activities?
8. Been able
to face up to your problems?
9. Been feeling
unhappy and depressed?
10. Been losing
confidence in yourself?
11. Been thinking
of yourself as a worthless person?
12. Been feeling
reasonably happy all things considered?

Your score:
function getInput(form) {
sum = 0;
for(j=0; j < form.q1.length; j++) {
if(form.q1[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q1[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q2.length; j++) {
if(form.q2[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q2[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q3.length; j++) {
if(form.q3[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q3[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q4.length; j++) {
if(form.q4[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q4[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q5.length; j++) {
if(form.q5[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q5[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q6.length; j++) {
if(form.q6[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q6[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q7.length; j++) {
if(form.q7[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q7[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q8.length; j++) {
if(form.q8[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q8[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q9.length; j++) {
if(form.q9[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q9[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q10.length; j++) {
if(form.q10[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q10[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q11.length; j++) {
if(form.q11[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q11[j].value);
break;
}
}
for(j=0; j < form.q12.length; j++) {
if(form.q12[j].checked) {
sum+= parseFloat(form.q12[j].value);
break;
}
}
}

[A score from
10-13 is considered in the healthy range].

Filed under: Economics

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