Total U.S. household debt levels increased in the first quarter as already stressed credit card borrowers faced rising challenges, a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Tuesday.

The bank report, part of its survey of household debt and credit conditions, showed that overall debt levels rose by $184 billion, or 1.1%, in the first quarter to $17.69 trillion. Overall borrowing levels are $3.5 trillion above where they were at the end of 2019, before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the report said.

Mortgage balances were up by $190 billion to $12.44 trillion, while auto loan levels increased and overall credit card borrowing outstandings fell by $14 billion by the end of the quarter, to $1.12 trillion. The report noted that credit card balances during the quarter were nevertheless 13.1.% above the level they stood at a year ago.

The report also found that more borrowers are running into stress. Overall delinquency rates hit 3.2% during the first quarter versus 3.1% in the final three months of last year. Despite the rise in the current quarter, the report said overall delinquency rates are below the 4.7% seen at the end of 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Even with the relative calm on overall delinquency rates, the report noted fraying around the edges for some consumers. Transitions in delinquent borrowing levels rose in the first quarter for all borrowing types, with 8.9% of credit card accounts and 7.9% of auto loan accounts moving into troubled status. Early delinquency rates for mortgage accounts remained “low” by historical standards, the report said.

“An increasing number of borrowers missed credit card payments, revealing worsening financial distress among some households,” said Joelle Scally, regional economic principal for the New York Fed’s Household and Public Policy Research Division.

The bank also said in a blog posting that accompanied the report that some of the most acute stress faced by credit card borrowers was among those who have exploited their total borrowing capacity.

“The share of maxed-out borrowers has been increasing from pandemic lows and is approaching pre-pandemic levels,” bank economists wrote. “The delinquency transition rates of those maxed-out borrowers are noticeably higher than pre-pandemic, resulting in higher transition rates into credit card delinquency overall,” they wrote, adding that if current trends continue overall troubled credit card accounts will rise.

The New York Fed data on credit and borrowing arrives in a landscape where borrowing costs have risen markedly on the back of the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes, which have been aimed at lowering high levels of inflation. While the Fed has not raised its interest rate target since last July it has held its overnight target rate range at between 5.25% and 5.5%. Higher-than-expected inflation over the start of the year has cast doubt on whether the Fed can lower rates this year.

High short-term rates have made all manner of credit more expensive, which has been creating stress for some types of borrowers. Offsetting the challenges, on balance American consumers have strong balance sheets and have been in generally solid shape, according to New York Fed researchers.

The report also found new mortgage creation levels held steady at the pace seen during the last three quarters at $403 billion during the first quarter, a pace well below that seen during the period between the second quarter of 2020 and the final quarter of 2021, when very low borrowing costs supercharged the housing market.


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