Banks Agree to Wipe Out Up to 40 Percent of Credit Card Debt But Watch Out.

Credit card lenders include Discover Financial Services LLC, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Capital One Financial Corp., American Express Co. and HSBC Holdings have finally come together with the help of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Service Roundtable to start the process of creating a debt solution, other than bankruptcy or credit counseling.

That could be potentially really good news for consumers as it starts to make some major movement towards the perfect debt assistance program I outlined before.

At the heart of this new initiative is the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency giving banks permission to write off up to 40 percent of the balance owed on credit cards on a case by case basis. If banks did this it would give consumers a possible solution to pay what they can afford without bankruptcy. That is good news.

But with every good news story there is a catch, and pretty significant ones at that. Banks don’t want to book the loss on the loan until the consumer pays off the reduced balance through a payment plan. That will mask the true losses by the banks under this plan for years. But the primary reason for this is probably because the banks want to and will come back in full force and vengeance to collect the total amount due and then some, if consumers fail to complete the entire plan as scheduled. That could be very dangerous for consumers that have a slip or two during the long and difficult 60 months of repayment.

Worse yet is that rather than in bankruptcy where consumers do not have to pay any income tax on the amount of debt forgiven, in this plan, they will. The group is asking that borrowers be able to defer payment of income taxes they will owe the IRS on the forgiven part of the debt until after the remainder was paid off. You have to pay income tax on forgiven debt, just as if you earned the money. That just puts the banks squarely ahead of the government and leaves the consumer with potentially years of additional debts payments to make after five years of paying back creditors.

No Lingering Tax Liability– Unlike now, where any forgiven debt is taxed by the IRS as if it was earned as income, except for debt discharged in bankruptcy, the IRS needs to not bill consumers for the that amount owed that creditors may write off under this plan. Getting a tax bill for debt you already can’t pay is a strong disincentive for consumers to even bother with repayment. – The Perfect Debt Assistance Program

And the forgiven debt tax issue is a big one. If banks write off a total of $60,000 worth of debt to help you avoid bankruptcy, depending on your tax rate you can wind up with an IRS obligation of $12,000, more or less. Finishing a long and hard repayment schedule over five years only to wind up owing the IRS and paying for another couple of years seems cruel and a huge disincentive.

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Scott Talbott, senior vice president at the Financial Services Roundtable is quoted as saying that under this plan “Both parties win”. I’m afraid that is an optimistic statements at this point and while we are potentially headed towards a good plan, we are not there. Right now I’d have to say the current plan heavily favors creditors.

Currently, the only thing the plan does is potentially leads consumers into a five year payment plan that is not binding on the creditors under law, leaves the debtor owing the IRS at a latter date, masks the banks write offs until the reduced debt is paid.

Since the plan is not binding, it will only take the actions of one creditor with excessive collection pressure, or arbitrarily changing their mind to conform with then current bank policy to continue participating to tank the whole repayment plan, maybe years into it. And creditor flip flops are not a worry of something that might happen, they happen now in a normal debt management plan, especially as creditors buy and sell portfolios of debts.

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If the plan fails years into the repayment plan, consumers will have wasted years of struggle and payments and potentially be in worse shape than if they just went bankrupt to begin with. In order for this plan to be effective it must be contractually binding, just like an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA) in the UK is.

Even though I once served on the board of directors of a consumer credit counseling office that was a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), I have been hypercritical of the NFCC in the past, feeling as if they are not doing enough to defend consumers against bad creditor behavior and actions since they are primarily paid by the creditors. But for this effort of trying to create a new solution for debtors I’ll give Susan Keating, the president of NFCC, a provisional thumbs up for finally seeing the light that better solutions for problem debt need to be made available to consumers, other than the traditional debt management plan (DMP).

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I also see my old contact at Consumer Federation of America, Travis Plunkett, is quoted as saying that “In this case we have a clear common interest”, we do Travis but we’ve got further to go before this is a good plan for consumers other than bankruptcy, where no lingering tax liability exists and the plan is binding on the creditors. Keep up the good work Travis.

Having spent the past few years in the UK and working with similar plans there, this new debt write off plan being put forward here could be something great but unless we tighten up some major issues, as I laid out in the perfect debt assistance program I’m afraid that it will not be as beneficial for both parties as it could be.

A final sticking point is that this plan only address part of the consumers financial struggles and does not provide a single solution to address all debts, as bankruptcy does. Not mentioned in this plan is how consumers in trouble would be able to incorporate a failing mortgage into one single and coordinated solution handled by a third part in the time of monetary crisis. If a plan can be created that address all the issues and wraps things up into one package, then we’ve got a world class solution.

Keep working on this guys, we are halfway towards a decent debt repayment solution for good people with bad debt.


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Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.
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