Few have heard of them, but they’ve been around for a few years: Bankruptcy scores.
Most Canadians know about credit scores, and some are acutely aware of their three-digit number. Where you fall on a scale from 300 to 900 can affect whether or not you qualify for a mortgage for your dream house, a car loan or a credit card and how much you’ll pay for the privilege of borrowing that money.
But there’s often another set of numbers that could cause lenders to deny you a loan or hike your interest rate — even if your credit score doesn’t look so bad. Financial institutions often rely on bankruptcy scores to gauge the probability that you’ll go financially belly up in the next 12 to 24 months.
Credit reporting bureau Equifax has a Bankruptcy Navigator Index that it says allows lenders to “uncover the financial red flags not so obvious at first glance.” And competitor TransUnion has its own CreditVision Bankruptcy Score.
The latter “is an empirically-derived model designed specifically for the Canadian market,” TransUnion Canada told Global News via an emailed statement. “The score ranges from 100 to 950, with lower scores indicating a higher risk of filing for bankruptcy or [a consumer] proposal,” the company added, noting that financial institutions, telecom companies and lenders in the auto-loan industry, among others, use it.
TransUnion has had bankruptcy scores for a number of years but introduced its CreditVision score in 2015, it said.
Equifax did not respond to two requests to provide additional information on its Bankruptcy Navigator.
How bankruptcy scores work
Bankruptcy scores are aimed at detecting risky borrowers that sometimes go under the radar with traditional credit scores, licensed insolvency trustee Doug Hoyes told Global News.
“It turns out that there is a significant difference in behaviour between the person with bad credit who will not file bankruptcy and the person with a similar bad credit score who will declare bankruptcy and this is what your bankruptcy score measures,” Hoyes, co-founder of Ontario-based debt-relief firm Hoyes Michalos, wrote in a blog post.
Sometimes, there’s a lag between when an overstretched borrower reaches the point of no return and when that reality will be reflected in his or her credit score. It’s possible for people with scores in the 600-700 range to be on the verge of defaulting on their debt repayments, said David Gowling, senior vice-president at debt consultancy MNP.
“Some people come in telling me how great their credit score is, but then you find out they’re using one type of credit to pay another type of credit,” Gowling told Global News. And because they’re still able to make minimum payments, “the credit score hasn’t caught up,” he added.
According to Hoyes, compared to someone with a bad credit score who will stay afloat, someone who is at high risk of going bankrupt tends to:
- Use credit more often;
- Apply for credit more often and have more recently acquired debts or credit accounts;
- Have fewer accounts in collection. (This is because people who rely on debt to pay more debt are often careful about not missing payments in the belief that this will grant them access to more credit);
- Have a higher credit utilization rate, i.e. carrying a credit balance that takes up a large percentage of your borrowing limit.
While credit scores are a look at your borrowing history in the rear-view mirror, bankruptcy scores likely pick up on these telltale signs of might happen in the near future, Hoyes told Global News.
In general, the credit file of someone at high risk of bankruptcy tends to show much more recent activity, which is why applying for new credit in an attempt to improve your credit score can backfire, according to Hoyes.
WATCH: Lenders behave like car insurance companies: If you don’t have a driving record, you’re automatically a very risky driver.
What bankruptcy scores mean for you
Bankruptcy scores affect borrowers in three main ways, Hoyes said. Like credit scores, they can influence both how much you’ll be able to borrow and at what rate. But they could also result in lenders deciding to sell your debt to so-called debt buyers.
Debt-buyers are companies – sometimes collection agencies – that buy delinquent debt at a deep discount and then try to collect some of that debt.
If a lender has, say, 100 borrowers who are late making debt repayments, it can use a bankruptcy score to decide which ones to offload to a debt-buyer. Selling the riskiest accounts for a fraction of the face-value of the credit balance means writing off some debt, but the loss for the lender might ultimately be less than if the borrowers filed for bankruptcy.
The thing is, though, that there’s no way to know what your bankruptcy score is. While consumers can review their credit reports and purchase their credit scores, bankruptcy scores are typically only available to lenders.
The key takeaway, though, is that if you’ve reached the point where you’re using new debt to pay old debt, your decent-looking credit score is probably meaningless.