The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought substantial financial uncertainty for many Americans. In response, executive and legislative actions in March and April 2020 provided unprecedented debt relief by temporarily lowering interest rates on Direct federal student loans to 0 percent and automatically placing these loans into administrative forbearance. As a result, nearly 37 million borrowers have not been required to make payments on their student loans since March 2020, resulting in an estimated $195 billion worth of waived payments through April 2022. However, 10 million borrowers with private loans or Family Federal Education Loan (FFEL) loans owned by commercial banks were not granted the same relief and continued to make payments during the pandemic. Data show that Direct federal borrowers slowed their paydown, with very few making voluntary payments on their loans. FFEL borrowers, who were not covered by the automatic forbearance, struggled with their debt payments during this time. The difficulties faced by these borrowers in managing their student loans and other debts suggest that Direct borrowers will face rising delinquencies once forbearance ends and payments resume.
Total household debt increased substantially during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a $1.02 trillion increase in aggregate debt balances, according to the Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit for the fourth quarter of 2021 from the New York Fed’s Center for Microeconomic Data. The yearly increase was the largest seen since 2007 in nominal terms and was boosted by particularly robust growth in mortgage balances, which grew by nearly $900 billion through 2021. Credit card balances, which have followed an unusual path during the pandemic, saw a large seasonal increase in the fourth quarter but remain well below pre-pandemic levels. And student loan balances increased only modestly through 2021 due to lower enrollment and also due to administrative forbearance on federal student loans—the smallest annual increase we’ve seen since 2004. Outstanding auto loan balances grew in 2021 by $84 billion. The $734 billion in newly opened auto loans through the year was the largest volume we’ve seen in our data.
Today, the New York Fed’s Center for Microeconomic Data released its Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit for the third quarter of 2021. Overall debt balances increased, bolstered primarily by a sizeable increase in mortgage balances, and for the second consecutive quarter, an increase in credit card balances. The changes in credit card balances in the second and third quarters of 2021 are remarkable since they appear to be a return to the normal seasonal patterns in balances. In a Liberty Street Economics post earlier this year we wrote about some demographic variation in these balance changes and the likely role of stimulus checks and forbearance programs in helping borrowers pay down expensive revolving debt balances. Here, we’ll take a fresh look at credit card balances and at the dynamics behind new and closing credit card accounts and limit changes, to examine how credit access and usage continue to evolve. The Quarterly Report and this analysis are based on our Consumer Credit Panel, which is itself based on Equifax credit data.