Credit card use hits all-time high, and debt highest in years

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Credit card use is higher than ever, debt levels are their highest in years, and delinquencies have ticked up, according to data TransUnion released Tuesday at the Card Forum in Miami.

But there is no cause for alarm yet, according to Paul Siegfried, senior vice president and credit card business leader at TransUnion.

For one thing, there is a “race to quality,” he said. Growth in new card accounts accelerated in very creditworthy consumer segments — by 4.9% among the “super prime” set and 3.2% in “prime plus." Growth in the number of cards granted to subprime and near-prime consumers slowed 2.7%. Overall, the number of credit card accounts in use in the first quarter of 2018 was 416.5 million, up 2.6% from a year earlier.

For another, underemployment still exists, and the economy is still recovering, so some delinquencies are to be expected, Siegfried.

“Total employment is not in a robust zone. If incomes are not going up and employment is not going up, we would expect to see some growth in delinquencies,” Siegfried said. The delinquency rate for the quarter was 1.78%, up from 1.69% in the same quarter last year but close to the 2012 rate of 1.77%.

And though the average debt per borrower is at its highest point in six years, $5,472, this, too, is in an acceptable range, Siegfried said.

“If you look at total consumer debt as a percentage of income, this is what I would consider to be an average time,” he said. “If you were to see that number going dramatically up and unemployment numbers not changing, that might be alarming. We see the employment numbers improving.”

New accounts for auto loans, mortgages and personal loans were all higher in the first quarter of 2018 than in the same period in 2017.

This year, TransUnion analysts saw a notable change in hurricane regions. In the first quarter of 2017, 1,800 mortgages were under forbearance, meaning the lender is not looking for payment right away or has granted a grace period of a few months. In the first quarter of 2018, 164,000 mortgages were under forbearance.

Overall, Siegfried sees all the numbers in the new report as strong.

“The lenders are very diligent with their processes; they're far more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago,” he said. “They tend to manage the business closely.”

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Credit cards Delinquencies Transunion