Late credit payments drop slightly in 2003

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2003

WASHINGTON After going up for a year, late credit card payments edged down in the last quarter. Delinquency rates for some other types of consumer loans moved higher, however, offering a mixed picture of how Americans are handling their debt obligations.

The seasonally adjusted percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due dropped in the April-to-June quarter to 4.04 percent, down from a record high of 4.07 percent in the first three months of this year, the American Bankers Association reported in its quarterly survey Wednesday.

Low short-term interest rates and extra cash coming from brisk refinancing activity during the second quarter ''cushioned the impact of a soft job market and kept delinquencies in check,'' said James Chessen, the association's chief economist.

However, ''until job losses become job gains, significant improvements in delinquency rates are unlikely,'' he said.

The nation's unemployment rate hit a nine-year high of 6.4 percent in June. Even though then the jobless rate has moved down since then and now stands at 6.1 percent, businesses in August slashed jobs for the seventh month in a row.

The delinquency rate on a composite of other types of consumer loans, including auto loans and closed-end home equity loans, climbed to 2.18 percent in the second quarter, the highest since the last quarter of 2001, and up from 2.12 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Amid signs of an economic rebound, the Federal Reserve last week opted to hold a key short-term interest rate at a 45-year low of 1 percent. Holding that rate steady meant commercial banks' prime lending rate for many short-term consumer and business loans will remain at 4 percent, the lowest level since 1959.

Although the recovery is picking up speed, economists said that the labor market will be the last part of the economy to show improvement. Businesses will wait until profits are better and they feel more sure of the rebound's vigor before they go on a hiring spree, economists said.

Earlier this month, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America reported that more homeowners were behind on their mortgage payments in the second quarter as job losses put a strain on some households' budgets.

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