Consumer loan delinquencies nudged upward in the third quarter, sending a mild warning just ahead of the usual fourth-quarter spike in consumer spending.
The American Bankers Association's quarterly survey showed that delinquency rates increased across all types of loans after the second-quarter declines. The association's composite index made only its second increase in the last nine quarters.
However, the increase - which followed an extremely favorable second-quarter reading - did not appear to threaten the overall consumer credit picture.
Economists said they were not alarmed and that the marginal increase is nowhere near the worrisome levels of two years ago.
"Delinquency numbers are very low, even though they have gone up a bit," said James Annable, director of economics at Bank One Corp. in Chicago. "But we can't fool ourselves. These benign circumstances won't last forever."
The survey, which is viewed as a barometer of consumer credit quality, found that 2.14% of all accounts - a composite measure of eight types of closed-end loans, excluding credit cards - were 30 days or more delinquent. That was up from 2.09% the quarter before. The share of delinquent home equity loans rose to 1.28%, from 1.19%, and direct auto loan delinquencies climbed to 1.89%, from 1.80%.
Credit card account delinquencies rose to 3.35% - a 2-basis-point increase from the second quarter. That quarter caused jubilation because of a dramatic decrease, to 3.33%, from 3.58% in the first quarter. At that time, lenders predicted that delinquencies would not retreat much further if at all.
Credit card delinquencies peaked in the fourth quarter of 1996, at 3.72% of accounts. Since then the delinquency number has bounced around.
James Chessen, chief economist for the ABA in Washington, pointed out that the composite measure of delinquencies in the third quarter was still lower than 2.31%, the 20-year average of composite delinquencies. Credit card delinquencies, however, are higher than the 20-year average of 2.77%.
In general, credit card loans tend to generate higher delinquencies because they are unsecured, whereas consumers risk repossession of their goods when they default on home equity or auto loans, a big part of the composite index. But other factors are at play. Mr. Chessen attributed the larger card numbers to "the democracy of credit" and said that "more credit is available to a wider spectrum of people," including less creditworthy consumers.
By another measure, credit card accounts are more troubled than other types of loans. A survey by Veribanc Inc., a bank research firm in Wakefield, Mass., that tracks the dollar amount of payments at least 90 days past due, found that seriously delinquent credit card debt rose in the third quarter to 1.98% of outstanding debt, from 1.86%.
By contrast, all other seriously delinquent payments were 0.9% of outstanding debt. Moreover, credit card net chargeoffs were at 4.28% of outstanding debt, Veribanc reported. Veribanc research director Warren Heller said banks are increasingly relying on fee income, - particularly punitive fees such as late and over-the-limit charges - to pay for credit losses.
The average card late fee increased 20 cents from October to November, to $25.25, according to Morgan Stanley Dean Witter analyst Kenneth A. Posner.
Credit card chargeoffs are not raising red flags yet. A strong economy with low unemployment, rising incomes, high consumer confidence, and a declining consumer bankruptcy rate are buoying lenders for the time being.
"Most people are servicing their debt well," said Lawrence Chimerine, chief economist of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. "The only thing I would worry about is if people started to lose their jobs, but I don't see that happening for a while."
In the meantime, banks are taking steps to protect themselves against a downturn, said Mr. Chessen of the ABA. Though the amount of consumer debt has been steadily rising, reaching $1.367 trillion in September, according to the Federal Reserve, banks' share of that debt has been declining. Increasingly, banks are securitizing debt, shifting it to the secondary market.
"Banks are conservatively managing the risk of consumer debt, transferring the risk to investors," Mr. Chessen said.