Families reduce debt load to pre-recession levels

Los Angeles TimesMay 14, 2013 

— American families reduced their debt load in the first three months of the year by 1 percent, bringing it down to pre-recession levels after an uptick in the last quarter of 2012, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday.

Outstanding household debt, including mortgages, credit cards, and auto and student loans, dropped to $11.23 trillion in the first quarter of the year – down $110 billion from the final three months of 2012, and well below the peak of $12.68 trillion in fall 2008, the Fed said.

Families have been steadily scaling back their debt since the collapse of the subprime housing market and the onset of the Great Recession. The trend reversed at the end of last year, when household debt increased by $31 billion in the fourth quarter. But Fed officials noted the downward trend has resumed this year.

“After a temporary deceleration in the previous quarter, the data suggest that household deleveraging has resumed its previous trajectory,” said Wilbert van der Klaauw, the New York Fed’s senior vice president and economist.

Housing was a big driver in the improved balance sheets of U.S. households. Total mortgage debt dropped to $7.93 trillion from $8.03 trillion in the previous quarter.

Mortgage delinquency rates fell to 5.4 percent from 5.6 percent. And the number of people who had new foreclosure notations added to their credit reports was down 12.5 percent to 184,000 – the fourth straight quarterly decline.

Households did a better job of paying bills across the board from January through March. The credit card delinquency rate dropped to 10.2 percent from 10.6 percent, and student loan delinquency fell to 11.2 percent from 11.7 percent.

The overall rate of household payments that were at least 90 days late fell to 6 percent from 6.3 percent the previous quarter. At its peak three years ago, that rate was 8.7 percent.

Aside from housing-related loans, family debt was roughly flat, the Fed said. Increases in auto loan levels and student loan debt offset a drop in credit card and other consumer loan balances.

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