Researchers uncover ‘pecking order of defaults’ as belts tighten

21 September 2022
Phone and internet bill trumps mortgage
The University of Sydney Business School and credit bureau illion have confirmed which financial products are more valuable to consumers when they start to feel the pinch - and which ones they are likely to default on first.

Dr Andrew Grant

Consumers are staring down a wall of financial uncertainty as interest rates continue to rise and the war in Europe shows no end in sight.

Researchers have established a ‘pecking order of defaults’ – bill paying priorities – confirmed by the type of credit, its perceived value, the depth of relationship with the financial provider, and the ease with which payment could be avoided.

The research has been carried out on both Australian and New Zealand consumers, finding that their respective payment preferences are very similar.

Dr Andrew Grant, a senior lecturer in Finance at the University of Sydney Business School, analysed Australasian data from illion’s extensive consumer bureau, and has drawn on further research into alternative finance and lending platforms to confirm the financial products that are more valuable to consumers under stress.

“We have found that ultimately, preserving an open line of credit – some level of liquidity – is very important when it comes to financial stress,” he said.

“It is probably not something people have actually thought about until it directly affects them. For instance, one credit card can be maxed to the limit while the other may still have $10k on it.

Time and again we saw that one card would be sacrificed, whereas another would continue to be serviced. Therefore, factors such as whether the card still had credit available were likely to influence consumer choices.
Dr Andrew Grant

Michael Landgraf, manager of Bureau Analytics at illion, said the research confirmed that consumers make choices that immediately benefit them.

“Making credit repayments on products that appear to hold the highest utilitarian value is seen as most important. Consequences, such as continued access to credit and a loss of livelihood drive these choices.” 

Dr Grant looked closely at when the most valued products were sacrificed in order to compile a list of default priorities. “We wanted to find out what would make a person default on their home payments,” he said.

“What we have uncovered is that it’s really only when all other options are exhausted - after that person has already defaulted on other products, and has no choice. 

“This is information that is really important to financial providers, especially with rising interest rates.

“Likewise, consumers also need to be aware that the consequences of defaulting on both a personal loan and a credit card (19%) is difficult to evade – even from two different lenders.

“Products with some level of utility, such as lived-in houses, cars, and mobile phones, rather than credit that has already been spent, appear to be valued by consumers. It would be particularly difficult to ‘get back on your feet’ without access to essential services,” Dr Grant said.

Person sitting on floor holding calculator over several bills

Mr Landgraf noted that where a person’s livelihood is at stake through a loss of a house or car, the likelihood of prioritising repayments on other credit products is very low.

“It is really only a total financial collapse that appears to lower the priority of a car loan or home loan repayment.

“Similarly, when a person defaults on their overdraft, this is quickly followed by a default on other credit facilities. It’s therefore a strong indicator of financial ruin.

“The mobile phone also seems to be very important to the consumer, as the repayment of phone instalments is generally prioritised over credit obligations, suggesting the smartphone is now a bedrock of people’s livelihood,” he said.

The depth of the relationship with the provider – how many products the consumer has with that bank or lender – is also important when it comes to making decisions about defaulting.

The researchers have compiled a list of the top ten bills most at risk. Taking a sample of borrowers who had ever missed a payment on a major credit product, while holding at least two different products, the researchers made comparisons in the likelihood of defaulting on one or either product.

Dr Grant said that, for example, 47,557 people in the sample in Australia defaulted on either their credit card or personal loan. Of this sample, 30,546 (64%) only defaulted on their credit card, 8,126 (17%) only defaulted on their personal loan, and 8,885 (19%) defaulted on both products.

“Thus, consumers are nearly four times as likely to default on their credit card, compared with their personal loans,” he said.

Young woman looking concerned holding bill

Dr Grant said consumers will often think they don’t want to damage the relationship with their bank. “I might get better hardship benefits from working with the bank as opposed to a third-party lender. An existing lender might have more accurate information about me – and I could benefit from this down the road,” he said.

“For instance, if I have kept my promises to the bank in the past, they are more likely to work with me to find a solution. I may also be able to access limited credit based on transaction account balances if my history is well known.”

He said newer, more innovative forms of credit like buy now, pay later benefit from product design: “Buy now, pay later generally involves relatively small payment sizes, and the money comes straight out of the person’s account in four payments. This often means they jump higher in the queue of payment priorities – by default.

“If the consumer is able to use discretion, they may opt to choose to default – this is removed with buy now, pay later payments. Direct debit payment for any bill is harder to avoid. If you have to call someone to change the details in your bank account to avoid a payment, it will be harder, and will have other consequences, so you are more likely to avoid it,” he said.

Assessing the risk to lenders, illion independently found that people holding both buy now, pay later and credit card products tended to spend more on their credit card than consumers holding only a credit card.

Mr Landgraf noted that holding both buy now, pay later accounts and credit cards appeared to give the consumer the perception of greater spending power, which, in reality, risked exacerbating their financial stress. “Given the consumer’s repayment preferences, this is a clear risk for credit card issuers,” he said.

Dr Grant concluded that lenders should pay careful attention to the products a consumer holds from other lenders.

Disclaimer: This research was funded by illion, a provider of consumer and commercial credit data and analytics products and services in Australasia.

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