FICO Credit Scores Are Going Through The Roof, Hitting Record Highs During Pandemic: We Explain

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Written by Dana Sanchez
FICO
FICO Credit Scores Are Going Through The Roof, Hitting Record Highs During Pandemic: We Explain. Image: Pexels

The average FICO credit score has risen steadily in the U.S. for the past decade, including during the coronavirus pandemic — which sounds crazy.

“Coronavirus tanked the economy. Then credit scores went up,” a Wall Street Journal headline says.

The upward trajectory may be short-lived. FICO scores are a lagging indicator of economic health — but not a predictor of where the economy is headed — according to Ethan Dornhelm, head of research and analytic development at the Silicon Valley-based analytics software company FICO.

There’s typically a “bit of a lag” between major macroeconomic events such as recessions and when the average FICO score is going to reflect that, Dornhelm told CNBC.

The average credit score hit a record 711 in July 2020 after millions of Americans lost their jobs and skipped payments due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s up from 706 a year earlier in July 2019 and 25 points higher than the 686 FICO score average in October 2009 — the low point after the Great Recession.

Early estimates suggest the average FICO credit score of 711 held steady at the July level through mid-October 2020. That’s the highest average score since FICO began keeping track in 2005, Wall Street Journal reported.

Unprecedented coronavirus stimulus relief early in the pandemic may have helped mitigate or delay lower credit scores, Dornhelm said.

Borrowers were able to stay afloat thanks to the stimulus payments in the CARES Act, the forbearance programs and enhanced unemployment benefits.

Borrowers got relief on mortgages, auto loans and student loans, freeing up funds and keeping credit reports clean.

Forbearance and deferment agreements do not affect credit scores or cause a FICO score to drop. Staying current with payments represents about 35 percent of a person’s overall FICO score calculation, Dornhelm said.

FICO scores range from 300 to 850 and are calculated using information in consumers’ credit reports, including the ratio of credit-card debt owed to total spending limit, payment history and prior loan applications. They don’t take into account employment history or income, WSJ reported.

In July, 7.3 percent of borrowers had missed payments reported on their credit file. That was actually down significantly from 8.1 percent in January.

For lenders, rising credit scores make it difficult to assess risk, WSJ reported. Millions of Americans are still out of work and living on unemployment benefits. Lenders’ underwriting models are under scrutiny and they’re looking for new ways to evaluate applicants’ creditworthiness.

In recent months, many borrowers appear to have improved their credit profiles and lowered credit-card spending which helped lower total outstanding debt.

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Lenders are interested in data to evaluate new loan applicants seeking credit cards and other loans that don’t typically require income documentation.

“We are convinced that new ways of assessing credit eligibility, like reviewing personal cash-flow data, offer a truer reflection of risk, and many banks are quickly coming around to that idea,” said Steve Smith, CEO of Finicity, a financial-technology company that has been talking to banks about providing some of this data.

Lenders are worried customers will use dormant credit-card accounts when unemployment benefits run out, so they are reducing credit lines and closing some accounts — even for customers with credit scores in the mid-700s.

A June survey of about 1,300 households by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that people who got stimulus payments used 35 percent of the funds to pay down debt.