Consumers are paying off credit card loans at a record pace, but as with many statistical indicators about consumer debt, not all analysts take this one at face value.
The high rate of paydowns showed up in recent data from Moody's Investors Service and Fitch IBCA on securitized pools of card loans.
Repayment rates in the first quarter were the highest in years, but analysts at Moody's and Fitch said consumers may be transferring card debt to products with lower interest rates rather than reducing overall indebtedness.
Moody's said the repayment rate on the $275 billion of credit card loan pools it tracks averaged 14.94% a month in the first quarter. The figure, up from 14.34% a year earlier, was the highest quarterly average in the 10- year history of Moody's credit card index.
A similar index at Fitch showed a record-high repayment rate in March of 16.87% on $185 billion of asset-backed securities it rates. The last peak Fitch reported was 16.48% in November 1997.
Both rating agencies said consumer confidence and the strong economy have influenced the percentages, which have been rising for 18 months.
As "people take home more money, some of it is finding its way toward paying the debt," said Richard Drason, associate director at Fitch.
Not only are consumers managing their finances more responsibly, but lenders also have grown more cautious, the agencies said.
Latonia D. Dukes, vice president of Moody's, said, "A lot of issuers are paying attention to risks in their portfolio, targeting higher-quality customers."
But the favorable signs-including low inflation, low unemployment, rising income, and a slowdown in personal bankruptcy filings-mask some negatives.
Personal debt is at record levels and the personal savings rate has dipped into negative territory, according to the Department of Commerce. Income, though rising, is not keeping up with outgo.
Defined as disposable income less personal outlays, U.S. personal saving was a negative $30.9 billion in the first quarter, compared with a negative $0.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 1998, Commerce said on April 30. Expressed as a percentage of disposable personal income, the saving rate decreased from zero in the fourth quarter to minus 0.5% in the first.
Moody's and Fitch's indexes do not show whether consumers are transferring credit card balances from one card to another, or from a card account to, say, a home equity loan.
"The refinancing tools are a big part of these record highs," said Christophe Germain, an associate analyst at Moody's.
Industry experts said the Fitch and Moody's numbers, because they apply only to securitized assets, do not paint a complete picture.
Most credit card loans in the secondary market are Visa and MasterCard accounts from the largest issuers, which are also the most aggressive in making balance transfer offers, said David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter in Oxnard, Calif.
Warren G. Heller of Veribanc Inc. said securitized debt usually performs better than that which banks keep in their portfolios. Securities tend to carry better accounts because issuers "would rather have their more predictable, less volatile portfolios out on the street."
Moody's numbers are "interesting and hopeful" but it will take time to confirm any trend, said Mr. Heller, research director at Veribanc, based in Wakefield, Mass.
Veribanc has said that seriously delinquent credit card debt-90 days or more overdue-rose to $5.1 billion in the fourth quarter of 1998 from $4.96 billion a year earlier. The broader American Bankers Association measure of bank card loans 30 days or more overdue shows a steady rise for the last several quarters. Bank credit card delinquencies rose to 3.45% of accounts in the fourth quarter from 3.28% in the third quarter and 3.04% on Dec. 31, 1997.
David Wyss, chief economist and research director at Standard & Poor's DRI, said the reports from Fitch and Moody's appear to support "Federal Reserve statistics showing that people are switching from unsecured to secured debt," such as second mortgages.
"Homeownership is at a record high, so it makes sense that people would consolidate their higher-rate loans into a lower rate mortgage," he said.