If the banking industry was looking for clarity on the trend in consumer loan delinquencies, it did not get it Thursday in the latest American Bankers Association data.
Consumer loan delinquencies, excluding first mortgages, declined in several categories during the third quarter, the ABA said. But many market experts said they do not see a lasting trend in the data, further clouding the view of whether delinquencies have peaked.
The ratio of delinquencies to total accounts in eight categories, including auto and personal loans, fell to 3.23%, from 3.35% in the second quarter. Delinquencies on credit card loans dropped to 4.77%, from 5.01%.
Though the declines were encouraging, the levels of delinquent loans — those 30 days or more past due — are still historically high. For example, the delinquency rate on credit card loans is well above the 4.18% rate in the third quarter of 2007, before the recession began.
And housing-related loans showed continued signs of trouble. Home equity loan delinquencies set another record in the third quarter, the ABA said, rising to 4.30%, from 4.01% in the previous quarter. Delinquencies on home equity lines of credit also set a record.
The data reinforced what many major credit card lenders have said in recent months: So long as the economy remains weak, delinquencies will remain high.
Job losses are the main driver of delinquencies and losses on consumer loans, observers said, and this part of the economic picture is often the last to brighten.
"You have to have salaries to make payments. It's simple math," said John Ulzheimer, the president of consumer education at Credit.com. "And it's just not improving."
The nation's unemployment rate declined in November to 10%, from 10.2% in October. However, some economists expect the Labor Department to report today that joblessness crept back above 10% in December, which would not bode well for fourth-quarter delinquencies.
"With a 10% unemployment rate and with hours worked each week at near-historic lows, there just isn't sufficient income in many cases for people to easily manage their debts," said James Chessen, the ABA's chief economist.
Sanjay Sakhrani, an analyst at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. who follows credit card lenders, was a bit more positive.
"There's at least some stabilization in the delinquency rate," he said.
The fourth quarter could show a slight uptick, he said, because people tend to spend more and pay off less debt during the holiday season. But the trend of declining delinquencies should resume by the second quarter and continue through the year.
Sakhrani also said it is important to remember that certain factors can skew the numbers. Higher delinquencies could reflect shrinking balance sheets, he said.
"It's not necessarily because the numerator is going up," he said. "The denominator is going down."