WASHINGTON – The proportion of consumers behind on their credit card bills remained near record-high levels in the July-September period as high gasoline prices and rising interest rates continued to put stress on personal budgets.
The American Bankers Associated reported Tuesday that the percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due dipped slightly to 4.74 percent in the July-September quarter after having hit an all-time high of 4.81 percent in the spring.
Even with the slight decline, consumer card delinquencies in the late summer and early fall were at the third-highest level on record, prompting concerns about more problems to come.
"Signs of financial stress still are present," said James Chessen, ABA's chief economist. "The persistent interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve and record high gas prices in the third quarter provided a one-two punch that continued to inflict pain on personal budgets."
The Federal Reserve has increased interest rates 13 times since June 2004 with many economists believing that rates will be boosted by another quarter point when the Fed next meets on Jan. 31.
That would push the Fed's target for the federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge to make loans to other banks, to 4.5 percent.
Commercial banks' prime lending rate, the benchmark for millions of consumer and business loans including credit card debt and home equity loans, now stands at 7.25 percent and would rise to 7.5 percent with another Fed rate increase. That would put the prime rate at its highest level in nearly five years.
Economists said there were some factors that could work to dampen the impact of rising interest rates.
"Continued strong economic growth and falling gas prices in the fourth quarter leaves me hopeful that delinquencies will continue to fall," Chessen said.
But he conceded that the adverse impacts of a string of devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes have yet to be fully felt on consumers' pocketbooks. Chessen predicted that the hurricane impacts were likely to be spread out over the final three months of 2005 and the first three months of the 2006.
The Federal Reserve reported on Monday that consumer borrowing fell at an annual rate of $648.8 million in November after declining by a record annual rate of $8.4 million in October. It marked the first time borrowing had dropped for two consecutive months since May and June of 1992.
Analysts said this slowdown in borrowing reflected weaker auto sales and probably last year's change in bankruptcy laws.
Mark Zandi, an economist at Moody's Economy.com, said that large numbers of Americans had rushed to file for bankruptcy in the fall before the law changed to make such filings more difficult.
He said this could be holding down growth in borrowing costs because it will take people who filed for bankruptcy a period of time before they can obtain new credit cards.
The personal savings rate has fallen to record lows this year as Americans have gone deeper into debt to finance their spending.