Bankruptcy and the economy

A fresh start

New evidence that rules for debtors are too tough


LAST year nearly 1m Americans filed for bankruptcy. That is far fewer than the number who used to seek bankruptcy protection before the law was made tougher a decade ago. This reform may have done more harm than good.The aim of bankruptcy law is to give people relief from unpayable debts. Some two-thirds of individual bankruptcies are due to a lost job. Many bankrupts need time to get back on their feet. In the mid-2000s Chapter 7 rules made it easy to wash away debts. That irritated credit-card firms, which claimed that spendthrifts abused the system; so in 2005 the law was toughened. The idea was to shift people to a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, where they would have to repay some of the debt.


The reform had a big impact. At least at first, Chapter 13 filings rose relative to Chapter 7 ones. And a new paper, from Stefania Albanesi, of the New York Federal Reserve, and Jaromir Nosal, of Columbia University, finds that the reform led to a permanent drop in the bankruptcy rate.

这项改革曾意义深远。至少,一开始,第13章文件与第7章文件相关联的。纽约联邦储备银行的Stefania Albanesi与哥伦比亚大学的Jaromir Nosal共同完成了一篇新的论文,指出这项改革实现了短暂的破产率降低。

However, other recent research suggests that this is not necessarily a good thing. Will Dobbie, of Princeton University, and Jae Song, of the Social Security Administration, look at Chapter 13 bankruptcies before the reforms of 2005. They link half a million bankruptcy filings to tax records and use a novel technique to analyse them. Because some bankruptcy judges are more lenient than others, people in similar straits may end up with different bankruptcy decisions. This quirk allows some useful comparisons.

然而,其他最新研究表明,这未必是一件好事。普林斯顿大学的威尔·多比(Will Dobbie)与社会保障总署的宋杰(Jae Song)于2005年改革前就研究第13章破产法。他们认为,这100万人中有一半破产与税收记录有关,并且使用一项新技术对其进行分析。因为一些审判破产的法官网开一面,所以处于类似困境的人有可能会有不同的破产决议。像这样的案例带来了用价值的对比。

Messrs Dobbie and Song argue that easier bankruptcy laws have good microeconomic effects. If a creditor may no longer claim large chunks of a bankrupt's salary, that may increase his incentive to work—and decrease his need to slip out of town, change his job and close down his bank account. On average, those granted bankruptcy earned over 6,000 more in the subsequent year than similarly-placed plaintiffs who were rejected. The unlucky ones found it trickier to service their mortgages. Michelle White of the University of California, San Diego and colleagues found that bankruptcy reform caused the default rate on prime mortgages to rise 23%.


Making consumer-bankruptcy law more debtor-friendly could hit Americans in other ways. If lenders are exposed to bigger losses, some argue, interest rates for such things as credit cards are bound to rise. But that danger can be overstated. Credit-card companies may be reluctant to charge rates higher than their competitors' lest they attract the dodgiest customers—those not put off by high rates because they know that, with luck, they won't have to pay their debts back.


Figures released on March 6th by the Federal Reserve show that consumer debt rose for the 41st straight month (see chart). With inflation low and wages weak, that is worrying. Ms White wants to roll back some of the reform of 2005, making bankruptcy cheaper. Whether that just increases profligacy remains to be seen.