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CONSUMER FINANCE

Americans fall behind on debts

The rate of late payments, including on home equity loans, is the highest since 2001, a bankers' group says.

July 04, 2007|E. Scott Reckard and Andrea Chang | Times Staff Writers

Slow job growth and declining home prices are causing financial problems for more Americans, who are falling behind on consumer debt, including home equity loans, at the highest rate since 2001, the American Bankers Assn. said Tuesday.

Credit counselors said consumers were paying the price for reckless attitudes about debt fostered by years of easy credit, particularly in the mortgage market.

"It's a monster we all created," said Todd Emerson, president of Springboard, a nonprofit consumer credit management organization in Riverside.

During the housing boom, home equity loans gave many consumers a ready source of cash as the value of their property shot up.

But with prices declining -- quite sharply in San Diego and some other California regions -- borrowers have less equity available to cash out by selling their houses or refinancing their home equity loans. As a result, late payments on such loans rose to 2.15% in the first quarter, up from 1.94% a year earlier and the highest in nearly two years. On home equity lines of credit, the delinquency rate was 0.6%, the highest since mid-2003.

Those jumps helped push the delinquency rate on all consumer loans to 2.42% from 1.94% in the first quarter of last year. The latest rate was the highest since 2001, when the technology bust and the 9/11 attacks led the economy into recession.

"There are still signs of consumer financial distress, which will continue throughout most of this year as the worst of the housing problem works its way through the economy," said James Chessen, the banking group's chief economist, who also cited slow growth in jobs as a contributing factor.

The study, based on data from more than 300 banks nationwide, showed a bright spot that Chessen called "somewhat remarkable": Delinquencies on credit card bills declined slightly from the fourth quarter.

Loan payments are considered delinquent if they are 30 or more days past due.

Economists linked the trouble in home equity loans in part to the meltdown of the sub-prime mortgage industry.

As housing prices began to stagnate in mid-2005, lenders loosened their standards for loans to risky borrowers. But with housing prices falling, late payments on sub-prime home loans nationwide rose in the first quarter to the highest level since 2002, the Mortgage Bankers Assn. reported recently.

As a result, lenders have tightened standards and regulators have cracked down on risky practices such as qualifying borrowers for loans based on initial "teaser rates."

The tighter underwriting also made it harder to refinance home equity loans.

"So folks who were habitual refinancers -- and I knew some of them, taking out loan after loan -- suddenly weren't able to do that again because prices stopped rising," said Wachovia Corp. senior economist Mark Vitner. But he added that such consumers probably were "more the exception than the rule."

He noted that the bankers' report showed fewer delinquencies on auto loans to borrowers with solid credit as well as on credit card debt. Household finances "are still in reasonably good shape," he said, adding that unemployment remained extremely low at about 4.5% nationally.

But anecdotal evidence reflects more people under financial stress, said David Jones, president of the Assn. of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. He said his members were reporting more debt-ridden consumers unable to make monthly payments, often on mortgages with adjustable rates that now are ratcheting higher after initial teaser rates ran out.

Some consumers, Jones said, can be helped by programs set up to help avoid foreclosure or by debt repayment plans, but many others are "hanging on by their fingernails."

"Some people cannot be helped," he said. "They don't have enough income to afford the debts they have, and those people are going on to bankruptcy."

Emerson said the bankers' report reflected a scary trend: Ten or 15 years ago, consumers made regular mortgage payments at all costs so as not to lose their homes.

"People today, in order to keep themselves alive, they're paying off their credit cards first rather than paying off their mortgages first in order to keep an open line of credit," he said.

Many of those homeowners bought expensive properties with a "figure it out when they get there" mentality, Emerson said.

"Trouble is," he said, "they never figure it out."

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scott.reckard@latimes.com

andrea.chang@latimes.com

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