By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Soaring U.S. unemployment and a shrinking economy drove delinquencies on credit card debt and home equity loans to all-time highs in the first quarter as a record number of cash-strapped consumers fell behind on their bills.
Delinquencies on the value of all card debt soared to a record 6.60 percent from 5.52 percent in the fourth quarter as more cardholders relied on plastic to meet day-to-day expenses, the American Bankers Association said.
Late payments on home equity loans rose to 3.52 percent from 3.03 percent, and on home equity lines of credit climbed to 1.89 percent from 1.46 percent.
A broader gauge showing late payments on eight categories of loans rose for a fourth straight quarter to a new record, edging up to 3.23 percent from 3.22 percent. That rate actually understates consumer pain because it excludes credit cards. The ABA tracks loan payments that are at least 30 days late.
â€œThe biggest driver is job losses,â€ ABA Chief Economist James Chessen said in an interview. â€œWhen people lose their jobs or work fewer hours, it makes it that much harder to meet their obligations. Unfortunately, weâ€™re going to see higher job losses in the next year, and I expect elevated delinquencies.â€
The ABA represents most large U.S. banks and credit card companies. Tuesdayâ€™s data are a bad sign for them as they prepare to report second-quarter results starting next week.
While improved capital markets may boost the bottom lines of some, analysts expect lenders such as Bank of America Corp, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc, Capital One Financial Corp and American Express Co to suffer higher credit losses, especially in cards.
Borrowers are struggling as the nationâ€™s jobless rate sits at a 26-year high of 9.5 percent, with 6.5 million jobs having disappeared since the recession began in December 2007. The Obama administration expects the unemployment rate to hit double digits before declining.
U.S. consumers ended March with $939.6 billion of revolving credit outstanding, a rough approximation of credit card debt, according to Federal Reserve data.
â€œConsumers tend to rely on credit cards as a bridge to cover their daily needs until they find new jobs,â€ Chessen said. â€œItâ€™s taking longer to find those jobs.â€
Meanwhile, home prices are down 32.6 percent from their peak in 2006, according to the Standard & Poorâ€™s/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices of 20 large metropolitan areas.
The ABA in June said it expects the recession to end this quarter, despite rising unemployment.
The overall ABA delinquency rate includes direct auto, indirect auto, closed-end home equity, home improvement, marine, mobile home, personal, and recreational vehicle loans.
Delinquencies rose to 3.01 percent from 2.03 percent on direct auto loans, to 3.70 percent from 2.96 percent on mobile home loans, to 3.47 percent from 2.88 percent on personal loans, and to 1.52 percent from 1.38 percent on recreational vehicle loans.
They fell to 3.42 percent from 3.53 percent on auto loans made through dealers, to 2.04 percent from 2.35 percent on marine loans, and to 1.46 percent from 1.75 percent on property improvement loans.