For months, Americans have barely dined at restaurants or traveled for vacation. There have been no ballgames or concerts to attend. Gym and other memberships mostly remain frozen.
Forced into lockdown mode by the coronavirus, people put big purchases on hold and scaled back their spending. Around the same time, mortgage lenders, student loan collectors and other creditors offered struggling borrowers a break on payments. And stimulus checks from the government arrived.
These trends have come together to form an unlikely silver lining to the economic recession, which set in eight months ago: Despite the pandemic’s economic devastation, which has tipped millions of people into unemployment, many American households are in relatively good shape.
Since April, consumer savings have increased, credit scores have surged to a record high and household debt has dropped. The billions of dollars that banks set aside at the start of the crisis to cover anticipated losses on loans to customers have been largely untouched. And lending at pawnshops and payday lenders, where business tends to boom during downturns, has been unexpectedly slow.
“Everything was upside down,” said John Hecht, an analyst at the investment bank Jefferies. Usually, in times of distress and unemployment, more people find themselves with deteriorating credit and are forced to seek high-interest, or subprime, loans, Hecht said, but not this year.
Banks and other consumer lenders are still bracing for financial stress next year, as millions of people remain out of work and the labor market’s rebound shows signs of stalling. A third surge of coronavirus cases has taken hold in the United States, and lawmakers in Washington are mired in stimulus battles. The number of people in America living in poverty has grown by 8 million since May — though their financial woes often aren’t captured by credit and loan data because they are out of the financial mainstream. And longer-term consequences such as wage stagnation, reduced entrepreneurship and the accumulated cost of interest-bearing debt could linger for decades.
But for now, households are weathering the turmoil largely because of the unusual nature of the current downturn. The pandemic ended America’s longest economic expansion on record, meaning that people came into this recession in better shape than they were in when the Great Recession took root in 2008.
This time, too, the government’s rapid aid efforts blunted a bigger crisis. Expanded unemployment benefits, $1,200 stimulus payments and aid to small businesses had an immediate impact this spring. Those who lost their jobs used the money to keep up with rent and other bills. Others used it to pay down debts or saved it.
“The quick, coordinated response of government stimulus and lender relief was unprecedented, and had a huge influence,” said Ethan Dornhelm, FICO’s vice president of scores and predictive analytics.