U.S. Credit Card Debt Soars to Unprecedented Heights

WASHINGTON—Studies indicate that credit card defaults and related write-offs increased drastically since 2006. Today, lenders write off 33 percent more in credit card debt than they did two years ago.

Statistics show that about 35 percent of all credit card holders are already exhibiting signs of possible default. Late credit card payments result in fees many consumers can’t afford.

Credit card debt accelerated to unprecedented heights since bank loans began to dry up due to mortgage defaults. Total U.S. credit card debt reached almost $800 billion in November 2007, up from around $680 billion in March of last year, according to the latest available government statistics.

In the aftermath of the U.S. mortgage crisis, the credit card bubble may be next to burst. In the past few years, banks have aggressively marketed credit card ownership and usage to consumers with limited income and low credit scores. Credit card standards remain lax, while loan standards have tightened to a degree.

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Brace for $1 Trillion Writedown of `Yertle the Turtle’ Debt

Be it ever so devalued, $1 trillion is a lot of dough.

That’s roughly on a par with the Russian economy. More than double the market value of Exxon Mobil Corp. About nine times the combined wealth of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Yet $1 trillion is the amount of defaults and writedowns Americans will likely witness before they emerge at the far side of the bursting credit bubble, estimates Charles R. Morris in his shrewd primer, “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown.” That calculation assumes an orderly unwinding, which he doesn’t expect.

“The sad truth,” he writes, “is that subprime is just the first big boulder in an avalanche of asset writedowns that will rattle on through much of 2008.”

Expect the landslide to cascade through high-yield bonds, commercial mortgages, leveraged loans, credit cards and — the big unknown — credit-default swaps, Morris says. The notional value for those swaps, which are meant to insure bondholders against default, covered about $45 trillion in portfolios as of mid-2007, up from some $1 trillion in 2001, he writes.

Morris can’t be dismissed as a crank. A lawyer, former banker and author of 10 other books, he knows a thing or two about the complex instruments that have spread toxic debt throughout the credit system. He once ran a company that made software for creating and analyzing securitized asset pools. Yet he writes with tight clarity and blistering pace.

Read moreBrace for $1 Trillion Writedown of `Yertle the Turtle’ Debt