Americans carrying more credit card debt

Last updated 17:20 14/08/2012

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Americans are carrying more credit card debt than a year ago, yet the late-payment rate for card holders remains near an 18-year low, an analysis of consumer-credit data shows.

The average credit card debt per borrower in the U.S. grew about 6 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, credit reporting agency TransUnion said.

At the same time, the rate of payments at least 90 days overdue inched higher to 0.63 percent from 0.60 percent in the same period last year, when the rate hit the lowest level in 18 years. Card delinquencies sank to 0.56 percent in the third quarter of 1994, the firm said.

The April-to-June figures reflect how consumers have been managing their credit card use since the start of the last recession toward the end of 2007.

Many borrowers have taken steps to save money and whittle down their debt. Among homeowners with a mortgage, many have made credit card bills a priority over their home loans and other financial obligations.

While late payments hover near lows not seen since the 1990s, cardholders have been racking up more debt.

In the second quarter, the average credit card debt per borrower rose 6 percent from a year earlier to US$4971($6136), TransUnion said.

That's still about 13 percent less than US$5719($7059), the average credit card debt per borrower in the second quarter of 2009. The latest figure was essentially flat from the first quarter of this year.

Between 2009 and 2011, borrowers pulled back on using credit and made an effort to slash their debt.

Average credit card balances also rose on an annual basis in the first three months of the year, as hiring picked up nationally and consumer confidence improved. It's too early to tell whether credit card debt will continue to climb, however.

The pace of job growth slowed sharply in the second quarter, with employers adding an average of only 75,000 jobs. Hiring appeared to recover somewhat in July, however, with employers adding 163,000 jobs.

One likely contributor to the rise in card balances this year is that banks have been issuing more cards to borrowers, including those with less-than-sterling credit.

The number of new cards issued to consumers in the second quarter rose 4 percent from a year earlier, according to TransUnion. And 26.1 percent of those cards went to non-prime borrowers, the company said.

The share of non-prime borrowers in the quarter was down slightly from 27 percent in the prior-year period, TransUnion said.

"The credit pie is bigger and non-prime consumers are getting a bigger slice of that pie," said Ezra Becker, vice president at TransUnion's financial services business unit.

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Banks have become more open to issuing credit cards to higher-risk borrowers due to tight competition for top-rated consumers, many of whom are not signing up for additional credit. That leaves the crop of borrowers with some blemishes in their credit history.

Even so, TransUnion forecasts that severe delinquency rates on cards will remain near current low levels at least through the end of this year.

- AP

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