Economic Policy Review
Do We Know What We Owe? Consumer Debt as Reported by Borrowers and Lenders
October 2015 Volume 21, Number 1

Authors: Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, and Wilbert van der Klaauw

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. This study compares 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). 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 authors’ central finding is that the SCF and CCP debt patterns are strikingly similar. There are, however, two noteworthy exceptions: the aggregate credit card debt implied by SCF borrowers’ reports is estimated to be 37 to 40 percent lower than that implied by CCP lenders’ reports, and the aggregate student debt implied by the SCF is roughly 25 percent lower than that implied by the CCP. In contrast to 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.

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