Less Stigma or More Financial Distress: An Empirical Analysis of the Extraordinary Increase in Bankruptcy Filings
Harvard Law School
Jay Lawrence Westbrook
University of Texas at Austin School of Law
Teresa A. Sullivan
University of Virginia - Office of the President
A central concern in domestic economic policy has been the great increase in consumer bankruptcy filings since 1980. That concern was a major cause of the adoption of the 2005 amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. We analyze the data from three studies of consumer bankruptcy over twenty years to learn more about the causes of that increase. One consistent claim has been that a decline in reputational loss (stigma) has made filing for bankruptcy easier, thus explaining the rise in filings. The principal competing claim has been that increased filings arise from increased financial distress. We find that the declining-stigma hypothesis is implausible because the data show that consumer bankrupts are even more indebted now than their counterparts were in 1981 and 1991 and that there is no identifiable group of less-indebted bankrupts that were tempted into bankruptcy by reduced reputational costs. Those data and other factors support an inference that the stigma of bankruptcy may have increased over the past twenty years.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 41
Keywords: bankruptcy, consumerworking papers series
Date posted: May 19, 2006
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