Consumers continue to accumulate credit card debt and are slowing their pace of paying it off, according to Veribanc Inc. of Wakefield, Mass.
Card outstandings usually fall in the first quarter as people pay down holiday season bills. But this year outstandings declined only $700 million, to $425.1 billion, compared with a plunge of $7.7 billion in the 1997 period.
Veribanc research director Warren Heller said his quarterly analysis suggests people are buoyed by the healthy economy, rather than feeling trapped by debt.
"The fact that the consumer spending boom is growing like gangbusters and the usual seasonal rest in the first quarter was much slower than usual suggests that card issuers are going to have a banner year," Mr. Heller said.
Aggregate credit card debt has risen steadily in the 1990s. At the end of March it was $425.1 billion, $39.3 billion higher than a year earlier.
Moreover, people have access to more credit than ever. Total credit card limits have reached a record high of $1.78 trillion. The average person can charge more than eight times what he or she already owes.
Some consumer advocates and economic analysts have been concerned about high consumer debt levels. But David Levy, director of forecasting at Jerome Levy Economics Institute in Mount Kisco, N.Y., said the large quantity of undrawn credit shows that people are being more rational and conservative.
On the other hand, Mr. Levy said, the high credit limits show that card issuers are being quite liberal, despite statements about tightening underwriting standards.
There will "probably be no real bloodshed until the economy turns," Mr. Heller concluded.
But he pointed to some storm clouds.
"We have seen no real letup in the rate of delinquency growth," Mr. Heller said.
"Delinquencies and chargeoffs have grown faster than card debt itself, and despite what we have heard" about industry countermeasures, he said, "the numbers don't show" significant changes.
Mr. Heller said the small decline in card outstandings was reminiscent of the first quarter of 1996, when the decline was also under $1 billion.
When that full year's results were in, receivables grew 14.3% and delinquencies hit a record high.
Veribanc also found that rates of chargeoffs and serious delinquencies- accounts more than 90 days past due-rose steeply in the first quarter. They have been up steadily since 1995. In three-plus years, the chargeoff rate has doubled, to 1.41%, according to Veribanc.
Serious delinquencies reached 2.18% in March 1998, up from 2.13% at yearend 1997 and 1.92% and 1.61% the two years before.
Mr. Heller warned that this trend "cannot be sustained."
Many analysts and economists-including Mr. Heller-are still not fretting. Michael J. Freudenstein, a specialty finance analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., said "credit quality continues to moderate.
"Most of the companies that I talk to expect the second quarter (delinquencies) to maybe peak, with perhaps a trending down toward the end of the year," Mr. Freudenstein said.
Mr. Levy said people continue to pay down debt. He pointed to the mortgage refinancing boom, which many people have used to get their balance sheets in order.
"Unlike the refinancing of the early 1990s, which was motivated by huge savings on interest rates, now people see it as a good way to consolidate debt," Mr. Levy said.
Mr. Levy said mortgage refinancing is fueling competition in the credit card business as companies scramble to recoup lost business.
Debt-consolidating consumers "are the bread and butter of the credit card industry," Mr. Levy said.
They "have balances they are not paying off, but also have other assets and are in enough of a position to make payments."
Mr. Heller disagreed, saying, "On the mortgage and consumer installment loan sides, we haven't seen too much excitement at all.
"Borrowings and paybacks have been pretty routine. It's the credit card arena where much difficulty has been occurring in the last couple of years."
Veribanc said that, as in the past, delinquency problems are concentrated among a handful of major card issuers. Five of the biggest accounted for 37% of outstanding card debt and 46% of the seriously delinquent debt.
These five-American Express Co., Banc One Corp., Citicorp, Chase Manhattan Corp., and Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter & Co.-had more than $75 billion of credit card debt as of March 31, according to Veribanc.
Of these, Veribanc said, only Chase seems to be gaining significant ground on serious delinquencies, its rate falling in a year to 1.09%, from 2.11%.
Also in the 12 months through March, Citicorp's chargeoff rate declined 9 basis points, to 1.08%, and Banc One's fell 17 basis points, to 1.18%.