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2000 Documento de Trabajo #80

A Debt Puzzle

Over 60% of US households with credit cards are currently borrowing |i.e., paying interest |on those cards (Gross and Souleles 2000). We attempt to reconcile the high rate of credit card borrowing with observed levels of lifecycle 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 efeective 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.

David Laibson
Andrea Repetto
Jeremy Tobacman