Back in August 2014, we reported that in what appeared a suspicious attempt to boost the pool of eligible, credit-worthy mortgage recipients, Fair Isaac, the company behind the crucial FICO score that determines every consumer’s credit rating, “will stop including in its FICO credit-score calculations any record of a consumer failing to pay a bill if the bill has been paid or settled with a collection agency. The San Jose, Calif., company also will give less weight to unpaid medical bills that are with a collection agency.” In doing so, the company would “make it easier for tens of millions of Americans to get loans.” Stated simply, the definition of the all important FICO score, the most important number at the base of every mortgage application, was set for an “adjustment” which would push it higher for millions of Americans.
As the WSJ said at the time, the changes are expected to boost consumer lending, especially among borrowers shut out of the market or charged high interest rates because of their low scores. “It expands banks’ ability to make loans for people who might not have qualified and to offer a lower price [for others],” said Nessa Feddis, senior vice president of consumer protection and payments at the American Bankers Association, a trade group.” Perhaps the thinking went that if you a borrower has defaulted once, they had learned your lesson and will never do it again. Unfortunately, empirical studies have shown that that is not the case.
Now, nearly three years later, in the latest push to artificially boost FICO scores, the WSJ reports that “many tax liens and civil judgments soon will be removed from people’s credit reports, the latest in a series of moves to omit negative information from these financial scorecards. The development could help boost credit scores for millions of consumers, but could pose risks for lenders” as FICO scores remain the only widely accepted method of quantifying any individual American’s credit risk, and determine how much consumers can borrow for a new house or car as well as determine their credit-card spending limit
The transformation is already in proces as the three major credit-reporting firms, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, recently decided to remove tax-lien and civil-judgment data starting around July 1, according to the Consumer Data Industry Association, a trade group that represents them. The firms will remove the adverse data if they don’t include a complete list of a person’s name, address, as well as a social security number or date of birth, and since most liens and judgments don’t include all three or four, the effect will be like wiping the slate clean for millons of Americans. This change will apply to new tax lien and civil-judgment data that are added to credit reports as well as existing data on the reports.
Civil judgments include cases in which collection firms take borrowers to court over an unpaid debt. Ankush Tewari, senior director of credit-risk assessment at LexisNexis Risk Solutions, says that nearly all judgments will be removed and about half of tax liens will be removed from credit reports as a result of the changed approach. He says LexisNexis will continue to offer the data directly to lenders.
In addition, if public court records aren’t checked for updates on lien and judgment information at least every 90 days, they will have to be removed from credit reports.
The outcome of this change is clear: it “will make many people who have these types of credit-report blemishes look more creditworthy.“
The WSJ notes that the unusual move by the influential firms comes partially in response to regulatory concerns. The three reporting bureaus rarely tinker with the information that goes on credit reports and that lenders consult to gauge consumers’ ability and willingness to pay back debts.
The regulatory push to boost America’s creditworthiness started at the top, under the guise of improving data tracking and collection:
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earlier this month released a report citing problems it found while examining credit bureaus and changes it is requiring. Issues the agency cited included improving standards for public-records data by using better identity-matching criteria and updating records more frequently.
Inaccurate information on credit reports, especially if it is negative information, can derail consumers from being able to gain access to credit and even lead to other setbacks like not being able to rent an apartment or get a job.
One in five consumers has an error in at least one of their three major credit reports, according to a 2013 Federal Trade Commission study mandated by Congress. The three credit bureaus received around eight million requests disputing information on credit reports in 2011, according to the CFPB.
It won’t be the first time such an exercise is conducted: in 2015, as part of a settlement with the NY AG, credit-reporting firms were already prompted to remove several negative data sets from reports. These included non-loan related items that were sent to collections firms, such as gym memberships, library fines and traffic tickets. The firms also will have to remove medical-debt collections that have been paid by a patient’s insurance company from credit reports by 2018.
What happens next?
Such changes might help borrowers and could spur additional lending, possibly boosting economic activity. But it could potentially increase risks for lenders who might not be able to accurately assess borrowers’ default risk.
Consumers with liens or judgments are twice as likely to default on loan payments, according to LexisNexis Risk Solutions, a unit of RELX Group that supplies public-record information to the big three credit bureaus and lenders.
For lenders and credit card companies it means one thing: chaos, and the potential of substantial future charge offs: “It’s going to make someone who has poor credit look better than they should,” said John Ulzheimer, a credit specialist and former manager at Experian and credit-score creator FICO.
“Just because the lien or judgment information has been removed and someone’s score has improved doesn’t mean they’ll magically become a better credit risk.”
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So how many US consumers will be impacted by this change? The answer: up to 12 million.
As the WSJ points out “removing this information from credit reports also will lead to changes in people’s credit scores. Roughly 12 million U.S. consumers, or about 6% of the total U.S. population that has FICO credit scores, will see increases in those scores as a result of this change, according to the company that created the FICO system, which is used by lenders in most U.S. consumer underwriting decisions.”
While for many of these consumers, the score increase will be relatively modest, as FICO projects that just under 11 million people will experience a score improvement of less than 20 points, that should be more than sufficient to go out and buy that brand new $60,000 BMW with an 80-month, $0 down, 0% interest rate loan.
Sarcasm aside, ultimately lenders will still be able to check public records on their own to find this information, and since FICO scores will now be “adjusted” just like GAAP, the likely outcome will be the transition of credit vetting in house, as Fair Isaac loses credibility within the loan system, potentially leading to even more draconian credit terms, even if it comes at substantial expense to US-based lenders.