A Debt Puzzle

David Laibson, Andrea Repetto, Jeremy Tobacman

NBER Working Paper No. 7879
Issued in September 2000
NBER Program(s):Asset Pricing, Economic Fluctuations and Growth

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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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w7879

Published: Aghion, Philippe, Roman Frydman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Michael Woodford (eds.) Knowledge, Information and Expectations in Modern Macroeconomics: In Honor of Edmund S. Phelps. Princeton University Press, 2003.

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