WASHINGTON – The percentage of credit card payments that were past due shot up to a record high in the second quarter as surging gasoline prices (search) strained budgets and made it difficult for some people to pay their bills.
The American Bankers Association (search) reported Wednesday that the seasonally adjusted percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due rose in the April-to-June quarter to 4.81 percent. That followed a delinquency rate of 4.76 percent in the first quarter and was the highest since the association began collecting this information in 1973.
"The rise in gas prices is really stretching budgets to the breaking point for some people," the association's chief economist, Jim Chessen, said in an interview. "Gas prices are taking huge chunks out of wallets, leaving some individuals with little left to meet their financial obligations."
While Chessen mostly blamed high gasoline prices for the rise in credit card delinquencies, other factors also played a role, he said.
With personal savings rates dismally low, people have less of a cushion to absorb the big jumps in energy prices, Chessen said. The personal savings rate dipped to a record low of negative 0.6 percent in July.
Rising borrowing costs also probably contributed to the spike in credit card delinquencies (search), he said.
The Federal Reserve (search) has been tightening credit since June 2004. That has caused commercial banks' prime lending rate to rise to 6.75 percent, the highest in four years. These rates are used for many short-term consumer loans, including some credit cards and popular home equity lines of credit.
After Hurricane Katrina (search), gasoline prices jumped past $3 a gallon before calming down. Although damage to oil facilities was less than feared from Hurricane Rita, economists expect gasoline prices to stay high.
The double blow from the two hurricanes is expected to slow overall economic activity and hiring in the months ahead, economists say.
Against this backdrop, credit card delinquencies are likely to remain high in the coming quarters, Chessen suggested.
The association's survey also showed that the delinquency rate on a composite of other types of consumers loans, including auto loans and home equity loans, climbed to 2.22 percent in the second quarter, up from 2.03 percent in the first quarter.