A Debt Puzzle
71 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2000 Last revised: 14 Jul 2021
Date Written: September 2000
Over 60% of US households with credit cards are currently borrowing -- i.e., paying interest -- on those cards. We attempt to reconcile the high rate of credit card borrowing with observed levels of life cycle wealth accumulation. We simulate a lifecycle model with five properties that create demand for credit card borrowing. First, the calibrated labor income path slopes upward early in life. Second, income has transitory shocks. Third, consumers invest actively in an illiquid asset, which is sufficiently illiquid that it can not be used to smooth transitory income shocks. Fourth, consumers may declare bankruptcy, reducing the effective cost of credit card borrowing. Fifth, households have relatively more dependents early in the life-cycle. Our calibrated model predicts that 20% of the population will borrow on their credit card at any point in time, far less than the observed rate of over 60%. We identify a resolution to this puzzle: hyperbolic time preferences. Simulated hyperbolic consumers borrow actively in the revolving credit card market and accumulate relatively large stocks of illiquid wealth, matching observed data.
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