Delinquent Nation: Late Payments Soar

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Late payments on a cluster of consumer loans, including those for autos, home improvement and certain home equity loans, climbed in the summer to their highest point since the country's last recession in 2001.

The American Bankers Association reported Thursday that the delinquency rate on a composite of consumer loans increased to 2.44 percent in the July-to-September quarter. That was up sharply from 2.27 percent in the previous quarter and was the highest late-payment rate since the second quarter of 2001, when the economy was suffering through a recession.

Payments are considered delinquent if they are 30 or more days past due. The survey is based on information supplied by more than 300 banks nationwide.

Late payments on credit cards, meanwhile, dipped during summer.

The delinquency rate on credit cards dropped to 4.18 percent in the third quarter, down from 4.39 percent in the second quarter.

The association's quarterly survey of consumer loans painted a mixed picture of how people are managing their debt. It suggested that some people feel more squeezed than others.

A severe housing slump and weaker home values have clobbered some homeowners — making it difficult, or even impossible for some to pay their monthly mortgages. Foreclosures surged to record highs and more homeowners fell behind on their payments during the third quarter of last year, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported last month.

A drop in home prices left some people stuck with balances on their home mortgages that eclipsed the worth of their home. Others got burned when low introductory rates on their mortgages jumped to much higher rates, which they couldn't afford.

"Consumer loans directly related to the housing market were hit the hardest," said James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "We anticipate delinquency rates will continue to rise on these types of loans in the fourth quarter of 2007, reflecting continued weakness in the housing sector."

Late payments on home equity lines of credit jumped to 0.84 percent in the third quarter. That was up from 0.77 percent in the second quarter and was the highest since the final quarter of 1997. The delinquency rate on home-equity loans in the third quarter rose to 2.28 percent, a two-year high.

Meanwhile, the delinquency rate on "indirect" auto loans — which are arranged through dealerships — jumped in the third quarter to 2.86 percent, a 16-year high.

Asked why credit card late payments waned while delinquencies on other types of consumer loans waxed, Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com, said: "Credit cards have more payment flexibility than installment debt such as auto loans and home equity loans," McBride said. "When times are tough, consumers can skate by on the minimum payment on the credit card, but the $500 car payment is still a $500 car payment."

Given all the troubles in the housing and mortgage markets, some distressed homeowners may need their credit card more than ever, McBride said. "The credit card is the line of credit that is going to put food on the table and pay for other day-to-day necessities," he said.

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