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Abstract: We analyze the interactions between two different forms of unsecured credit and their implications for default behavior of young U.S. households. One type of credit mimics credit cards in the United States and the default option resembles a bankruptcy filing under Chapter 7; the other type of credit mimics student loans in the United States and the default option resembles Chapter 13. In the credit card market a financial intermediary offers a menu of interest rates based on individual default risk, which account for borrowing and repayment behavior in both markets. In the student loan market, the government sets the interest rate and chooses a wage garnishment to pay for the cost associated with default. We prove the existence of a steady-state equilibrium and characterize the circumstances under which a household defaults on each of these loans. We demonstrate that the institutional differences between the two markets make borrowers prefer to default on student loans rather than on credit card debt. We find that the increase in student loan debt together with the expansion of the credit card market fully explains the increase in the default rate for student loans in recent normal years (2004-2007). Worse labor outcomes for young borrowers during the Great Recession (2008-2009) significantly amplified student loan default, whereas credit card market contraction during this period helped reduce this effect. At the same time, the accumulation of student loan debt did not affect much the default risk in the credit card market during normal times, but significantly increased it during the Great Recession. An income contingent repayment plan for student loans completely eliminates the default risk in the credit card market and induces important redistribution effects. This policy is beneficial (in a welfare improving sense) during the Great Recession but not during normal times.

Keywords: Default, student loans, credit cards, Great Recession

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