Consumers still struggle with debt and it's likely to be a persistent problem this year as unemployment remains high, analysts with Fitch Ratings said in a report released Tuesday.
Delinquent balances on credit cards reached record levels and defaults surged higher in December, Fitch said.
The rate for payments more than 60 days delinquent reached an all time high of 4.54 percent for the December index, which is based on performance data through the end of November. The rate surpassed the previous high of 4.45 percent set in June.
Charge offs — loans that won't be repaid — crept up to 10.68 percent from 10.09 percent in the prior month but remained inside of the record high of 11.52 percent set in September 2009.
Charge offs are poised to trend even higher in the coming months as consumers struggle with debt burdens in the still challenging employment environment, said Fitch Managing Director Michael Dean.
Fitch analysts expect unemployment to peak at 10.4 percent in the second quarter of this year and remain above 10 percent throughout the year.
Charge offs peaked in the third quarter of 2009 with Fitch's index reaching 11.52 percent in September 2009 before receding in recent months. While recent trends point to higher charge offs, future deterioration is not anticipated to be as severe given that unemployment is expected to plateau, the analysts said.
Credit card providers, anticipating regulatory changes that take effect in February will restrain their ability to control risk through fees and interest rates, have boosted interest rates ahead of the new laws.
As a result, the gross yield — the measure of interest, fees and other revenue collected on outstanding balances — continued to increase, reaching 20.2 percent. It's the first time since April 2001 that Fitch's Prime Gross Yield index has surpassed 20 percent.
Monthly payment rates, a measure of how quickly consumers are paying off their card balances, fell to 17.64 percent from 18.57 percent the month before. The rates are low compared to 2006 and 2007, when the MPR index routinely topped 20 percent.
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