Consumers in energy-producing regions of the United States are finding it hard to pay their bills.
Even as total household debt increased in the first quarter and delinquencies nationwide reached their lowest levels since the start of the housing crisis, the sustained drop in oil and gas prices has hit borrowers in energy-producing regions hard, with delinquencies for automotive loans spiking well above the national average.
In areas whose local economies are heavily reliant on energy, 4.6% of auto loans were 90 days or more past due, as compared to an average of 3.4% for the entire U.S., according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The rise in consumer delinquencies is troubling news for banks in energy-dependent markets that are already dealing with higher commercial-loan delinquencies. As drilling has slowed in those markets, energy firms have been forced to lay off workers, many of whom are now falling behind on their bills.
This year, for the first time, the New York Fed analyzed borrowing and delinquency patterns in energy-producing regions—defined as counties in which at least 6% of the jobs are in the oil and gas industry—and published this data separately from the results for individual states and the U.S. as a whole. The counties are spread across more than a dozen states, including Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas and North Dakota.
For the first half of the 2000s, mortgage delinquencies in these rural counties were consistently higher the national average, but from 2007 onward, consumers in energy-dependent regions looked to be in much better shape than most Americans. In the fall of 2009, for example, only 3.8% of mortgages in the oil patch were delinquent, as compared to 8.2% of mortgages nationwide. There was a similar pattern in delinquency rates for auto loans.
But just as the oil- and gas-rich states weathered the Great Recession better than the rest of the country, so now they are suffering while the U.S. as a whole enjoys a recovery.
At 1.8%, mortgage delinquencies in the oil patch are still below the national average of 2%. But while the delinquency rate in energy-producing regions is the same as it was in the first quarter of last year, the national rate has fallen from 2.9% a year ago.
Researchers at the New York Fed cautioned, however, that the trouble in the oil and gas industry does not constitute a national crisis. Indeed, the 327 energy-producing counties now seeing an upswing in delinquencies represent a mere 1.7% of total U.S. employment.
"While these effects are relevant in these counties, it's important to remember that the affected areas are quite small relative to the nation," Fed economists wrote in a blog post published Tuesday.
In the first quarter, only 5% of consumer debt nationwide was in some stage of delinquency, the lowest amount since the second quarter of 2007.
"Delinquency rates and the overall quality of outstanding debt continue to improve," Wilbert van der Klaauw, a senior vice president at the New York Fed, said in a release. "The proportion of overall debt that becomes newly delinquent has been on a steady downward trend and is at its lowest level since our series began in 1999."
American consumers continue to borrow heavily to finance their homes and higher education. Mortgage debt has reached its highest level in more than four years, increasing by $198 billion from the first quarter of 2015. And student-loan debt nationwide is now a staggering $1.26 trillion, having increased $72 billion over the same period.
Nationwide, the number of auto loans has hit a record high of $1.07 trillion, up from $968 billion in the first quarter of 2015. The total has been growing for nearly five straight years, and every quarter since the third quarter of 2013 has yielded a new high-water mark.