In a hopeful sign on the consumer credit card front, debtors are paying back larger percentages of their monthly balances.
Moody's Investors Service's monthly index of repayment rates showed that cardholders paid a record 14.29% of their card debt in October, compared with 13.45% a year earlier.
The previous high was 14.06% in March 1995.
Moody's tracks the performance of $235 billion of credit card loans in securitized pools.
Analysts find the repayment data promising but mysterious. While consumers are paying more of their card debt, they are also defaulting at record rates.
Edward O. Bankole, Moody's senior credit officer, said it is too early to tell whether the stronger repayment rate will be sustained. The "sharp rise in October stands out," he said.
The average customer has four credit cards and $4,000 in card debt, Mr. Bankole said. Lenders typically require 2.5% to 3% of a balance as the minimum monthly payment, but customers on average are paying far more.
The October repayment rate may reflect issuers' success persuading check users to make their purchases with cards and issuers' tightened underwriting and collections efforts, Mr. Bankole said.
Or it may be that card debts are being shifted into home equity loans at their typically lower interest rates, Mr. Bankole said. Home equity lending is growing rapidly, and mortgage lenders say that is at the expense of credit card lending.
Christine Clifford of David Olson Research Co., Columbia, Md., estimated that 70% of home equity loans are used to consolidate debt, and the majority of the debt is on credit cards.
Home equity loan interest rates, generally around 9% to 10.5%, may not be much lower than on some credit cards. But borrowers can repay them over longer periods and take advantage of an income tax deduction no longer allowed on credit cards.
"I wouldn't be surprised if (home equity loans) are driving some of the loan consolidation in the industry," said Charles A. Albright, chief credit officer of Household Credit Services, Salinas, Calif.
Mr. Albright said loan consolidation within the credit card industry is also thriving. "There is a lot of hot money out there as more card lenders trade customers," he said.
The aggressive marketing of platinum cards is responsible for some of the balance transfer activity, card experts said. The larger credit lines associated with platinum cards - as high as $100,000 - give cardholders "more room to move balances around," said Mr. Albright.
People's Bank of Bridgeport, Conn., is among the issuers that saw customer repayment rates spike in October. Its 12.95% repayment rate was 1.5 percentage points higher than in the first six months of this year. People's has historically had repayment rates below the industry average.
John Klein, executive vice president of credit card services at People's, said "revolving credit is not growing as briskly as it has," which may account for the spike in Moody's index.
Balance transfer offers are on the rise, Mr. Klein said. "Among certain issuers, the level of price competition has increased," he said.