Off to the supermarket with credit card in hand

According to bank officials, consumer debt in the form of credit cards and consumer and personal loans is incurred by two sectors of the population – those who cannot make ends meet on their income and those who have overspent on non-essential items. According to Bank of Greece figures, the latter form of debt increased by 39.7 percent between November 2001 and November 2002. During the same period, credit card debt increased by 35.6 percent. In all, Greeks owed 9,613 billion euros in all three categories in November 2002, an increase of 27.5 percent over the previous year. «Do you know how many families pay at the supermarket by credit card? Credit cards and loans have become necessary for the family when their income is reduced for whatever reason,» said a bank official who lives in a low-income area. «Even people who have lost their jobs and who cannot meet their family’s needs get consumer loans on the basis of their last income statement,» he said. As for those who have obtained loans and who are paying their debts off by reducing consumption, another bank official said: «For a while after the collapse of the stock market, a number of people tried to maintain their acquired standard of living through loans. At first they managed, but now their payments are mounting under high interest rates and the banks are having a hard time getting their money back.» One wonders then why banks are thinking of abolishing the 3,000-euro ceiling on personal loans (without supporting documents) and the 25,000-euro ceiling on loans with supporting documents. «Our profit margins are so high that even if two in 10 never pay us back, we still come out on top,» one bank official told Kathimerini. «If the interest rate on housing loans is low, the interest on consumer loans and credit cards are high and these are the kinds of loans were aiming at,» he added. There are also some people – very few – who borrow money using false data, while others try to gain time by paying loans back with other loans. Some work all day and then stay home, trying to pay off cars, huge television sets, household appliances and credit card bills that reflect an artificial living standard. The only ones who gain are the banks and the business sector. The losers are the consumers. Official policy is contradictory. «While the government tells us not to spend more than we produce, the credit margins increase consumption without increasing production. While talking about tight budgets and wage austerity, we are encouraging household debt,» commented a Bank of Greece economist.