(Fortune Magazine) -- This past summer's subprime meltdown involved about $900 billion in now-suspect securitized debt, reckless lending, and consumers who buckled under the weight of loans they couldn't afford. Now another link in the consumer debt chain - credit cards - is starting to show signs of strain. And the fear that the $915 billion in U.S. credit card debt (an uncannily similar figure) may blow up has major financial institutions like Citigroup, American Express, and Bank of America strapping on their Kevlar vests.
The doomsday scenario would play out something like this: Just like CDOs and other asset-backed securities, credit card debt is sliced, diced, and sold off again as packages of securities. Rising delinquencies would hurt not only the banks involved but the securities backed by the credit card receivables. Those securities would decline in value as consumers defaulted, leading to bank losses as well as portfolio losses in the hedge funds, institutions, and pensions that own the securities. If the damage is widespread enough, it could wreak havoc on the economy much as the subprime crisis has done.
To be sure, there are key differences between the subprime market and the problems brewing with credit cards. The first is that while rising mortgage delinquencies were apparent for months before the subprime market blew up, credit card delinquencies are actually coming off unusually low levels.
But credit card debt is different from subprime debt in another way: Unlike mortgages, credit card debt is unsecured, so a default means a total loss. And while missed payments are at a historical low, they show signs of an uptick: The quarterly delinquency rate for Capital One, Washington Mutual, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Bank of America rose an average of 13% in the third quarter, compared with a 2% drop in the previous quarter.
If there is an international precedent the U.S. should be watching, it's actually that of the U.K. British consumers are just as overstretched as Americans, but since the real estate market there rose faster and fell earlier, they're about 18 months ahead in the credit cycle. Since the last quarter of 2005, credit card delinquencies and charge-off rates in Britain have risen as much as 50%, forcing banks to take huge write-offs.
It's a sign of the times that, according to one survey last month, 6% of British homeowners have been using their credit cards to pay their mortgages. That's suicidal, of course, given that credit card interest rates are more than double even the heftiest mortgage. Keep your fingers crossed that it's not a trend that crosses the Atlantic.
That doesn't sound good. At. All.
The T.V. pundits tell us that the housing meltdown is not the entire market. But let's see: so far we have seen a problem in:
1. An almost nationwide mortgage and housing meltdown; and
2. Credit card delinquency rates rising and interest rates and fees rising; and
3. Fuel, food, health care and education costs rising far faster than "core" inflation; and
4. A rapidly falling dollar; and
5. Drought in much of the country and flooding in others; and
6. Wages and social security payments not keeping up with inflation; and
7. A crumbling infrastructure (bridges failing and bridges to nowhere).
The credit problems are not the economy. It's just the tip of it.