Bankruptcy filings down 4.7% in state
Weak economy hitting small-business owners
Bankruptcy filings in Wisconsin continued to fall for the second consecutive year, but attorneys say the hangover from the economic downturn still is forcing some small-business owners to throw in the towel.
Through the first six months of 2012, there were 14,046 bankruptcy petitions filed in the state, down 4.7% from 14,737 during the first half of 2011.
That's a slower pace of decline than the 14% seen nationally in January through June this year, but nonetheless a move in the right direction. For the entire year 2011, bankruptcy filings decreased about 10% in Wisconsin, which was the first drop in six years.
Economist Brian Jacobsen said recent improvements in credit conditions and earnings have had some effect.
"Year-on-year, median weekly earnings are up, so that helps. Credit conditions are better. That helps. These aren't huge improvements, but they're at least improvements," said Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist for Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls.
Milwaukee bankruptcy attorney James Miller of Miller & Miller said many of the people who were doomed to file bankruptcy did so not long after the recession slashed their income.
"That initial hit from the negative economy is already three to four years past us, and the huge number of people who filed - especially the more blue-collar worker who was living paycheck to paycheck and lost overtime or their job - filed almost immediately," Miller said.
Still, Miller said, small-business owners whose personal assets backed up their loan are calling it quits today after hanging on as long as they could in an economy that hasn't gained much momentum.
"We're seeing a lot of restaurateurs who haven't been able to make it, and small retailers," he said. "The mom-and-pop type stores that tried to make it through are just not making it right now."
Madison attorney Claire Ann Resop, of von Briesen & Roper, said a pickup in the economy that small businesses thought would occur by now - especially any business related to real estate - hasn't taken place.
Resop said that a couple of years ago, many people thought real estate prices and personal income would have improved by 2012.
"We're not saying that anymore," Resop said. "We don't see the real estate values increasing in the near future. We don't see people's ability to earn more income going up in the near future."
She said consumers filing for bankruptcy in recent months often have been people who had higher incomes before the economy tanked and had savings and retirement accounts to tap before finally declaring insolvency.
"We don't see the kind of credit debt we were seeing a few years ago, where people would have $90,000 to $100,000 in credit card debt and they were making well under $100,000 a year," Resop said. "But we still see people with $30,000-$40,000 they haven't been able to resolve.
"We think that's sitting out there. And if holders of that debt, who have purchased that debt, get aggressive about suing on it, we are going to continue to see bankruptcies."
Robert Waud, a bankruptcy attorney with Todd Esser & Associates in Waukesha, said he's seeing about the same amount of small-business owners as he did a year ago. He said joblessness - and divorce - are two key factors that are pushing people in bankruptcy.
"We aren't any more busy than we were last year, but I think the issues are still the same - this country needs to get back to work," Waud said.