By Bill Rochelle and Bob Willis
April 5 (Bloomberg) -- The jump in March bankruptcy filings is another indication the U.S. economy is in recession, led by states where the housing boom turned to bust.
The more than 90,000 bankruptcy filings in March were the highest since insolvency laws became more restrictive in October 2005, according to statistics compiled from court records by Jupiter eSources LLC. At a daily rate, filings in March were 30 percent above the pace in 2007.
Rising bankruptcies, together with mounting foreclosures and fewer jobs, are further signs the biggest housing slump in a generation is hurting consumers and businesses. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke this week for the first time acknowledged the economy may be facing a recession and vowed to act to cushion the slowdown.
``We're seeing fairly high readings in these measures of distress like bankruptcies, foreclosures and mortgage defaults,'' said Chris Low, chief U.S. economist at FTN Financial in New York. The most affected states are ``also where the most housing-related business growth was,'' said Low.
The states most affected by the housing recession, including California, Nevada and Florida, were among those with the largest increases in bankruptcies.
They are also among states where unemployment rates exceed the national average. The jobless rate in California is 5.7 percent and Nevada's is 5.5 percent in February. Nationally, 5.1 percent of workers were unemployed in March, the highest level since September 2005, the Labor Department reported yesterday.
California led the nation with a 42 percent increase in bankruptcy filings at an annual pace in the first quarter, according to Jupiter eSources LLC. Florida had a 35 percent increase and Nevada saw a 32 percent rise, according to the Oklahoma City-based Jupiter's service known as AACER, or Automated Access to Court Electronic Records.
Nevada led the nation with the highest foreclosure rate in February, with filings up 68 percent from a year before, and with one in every 165 households in default or foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a seller of foreclosure data.
California had the second-highest rate, with one in every 242 households in default or foreclosure, followed by Florida, with one in every 254, RealtyTrac said March 13.
The housing recession, coupled with weakening consumer spending and mounting credit losses at financial firms, is dragging the economy toward its first recession since 2001.
The economy lost 80,000 jobs in February, the biggest loss since March 2003, following larger than previously reported declines of 76,000 in each of the two prior months, the Labor Department also said yesterday.
Economists surveyed by Bloomberg in the first week of March forecast growth would slow to a 0.1 percent pace in the first quarter, from a 0.6 percent rate in the last three months of 2007. The odds of a recession were even.
Since then, most of the data has indicated deterioration. Retail sales fell 0.6 percent in February, for a second decline in three months. Cars and light trucks sold at an average 15.2 million annual pace in the first three months of the year, the fewest since the third quarter of 1998.
Consumer spending has faltered as record energy prices and falling home values leave Americans feeling less wealthy and with less cash to spend. Spending rose in February at the slowest pace in more than a year, the government said last week.
Business bankruptcies and reorganizations posted gains too. First-quarter filings to liquidate or reorganize in Chapter 11 grew at an annual pace of 16 percent. If that rate were to continue for the rest of the year, 8,100 businesses would be in Chapter 11 compared with 6,240 in 2007.
The jump in filings over the first three months of 2008 reversed a trend from late 2007, when filings shrank.
The number of Americans seeking bankruptcy fell in late 2005 and early 2006 after jumping ahead of the October 2005 law making it harder for people to erase debt.
In the two weeks before the new law, 630,000 Americans sought bankruptcy protection, bringing total filings in 2005 to a record 2.1 million. There were 590,500 filings in 2006 and 827,000 in 2007.