OPINION

Borrowers up against the wall

Numbers don’t lie. Only a few years ago, Greek households had one of the lowest borrowing rates in Europe. Things are changing fast. A growing number of Greeks are caught up in the vicious cycle of overindebtedness. Total borrowing, including credit cards as well as house, personal, consumer and open-ended loans, is near 57 billion euros. That figure is not that big compared to the European Union average. Of great concern, however, is the fact that the credit amount is unevenly distributed – most of the burden falling on the backs of medium- and lower-income groups. These people do not usually take out loans to finish off their new home or to overcome some unexpected difficulty. Carried away by the degenerate lifestyle projected on their television screens, they resort to borrowing to fulfill consumption needs that often exceed their income capacity. Apart from abusing their credit cards, consumers often take out loans to fund their vacations. For sure, there is nothing the government or the Bank of Greece can do to stop this from happening. Past warnings have fallen on deaf ears. Consumers are overwhelmed by the banks’ aggressive advertising campaigns. The reason is easy to see: big profits. The interest rate on credit cards and all sorts of consumer loans stands much higher than the deposit rate. But the situation is unsustainable in the long run. One in 10 borrowers pays the installments with a three-month delay. The total amount of outstanding unrecovered debt exceeds 3.2 billion euros. For the time being, what prevents consumers from defaulting on their debts is that their obligations stemming from credit cards and consumer loans are recycled with debt-transfer programs to other banks. In many cases, people are forced to spend their life savings to rescue an overindebted family member. Things have come to a head. The current rate of credit expansion will push many a consumer over the edge. Note that an economic meltdown with a fall in growth rates and soaring interest rates could worsen the situation further. Many consumers will then be up against the wall.