New FRB NY report compares borrower and lender reports of consumer debt. It finds that we mostly know what we owe, with the exception of credit cards, where consumers report owing half as much as they do.
Do We Know What We Owe? A Comparison of Borrower- and Lender-Reported Consumer Debt
Household surveys are the source of some of the most widely studied data on consumer balance sheets, with the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) generally cited as the leading source of wealth data for the United States. At the same time, recent research questions survey respondents’ propensity and ability to report debt characteristics accurately. We compare household debt as reported by borrowers to the SCF with household debt as reported by lenders to Equifax using the new FRBNY Consumer Credit Panel (CCP). Moments of the borrower and lender debt distributions are compared by year, age of household head, household size, and region of the country, in total and across five standard debt categories. The debt reports are strikingly similar, with one noteworthy exception: the aggregate credit card debt implied by SCF borrowers’ reports is less than 50 percent of the aggregate credit card debt implied by CCP lenders’ reports. Adjustments for sample representativeness and for small business and convenience uses of credit cards raise SCF credit card debt to somewhere between 52 and 66 percent of the CCP figure. Despite the credit card debt mismatch, bankruptcy history is reported comparably in the borrower and lender sources, indicating that not all stigmatized consumer behaviors are underreported.