The percentage of credit card payments that were past due shot up to a record in the second quarter as surging gasoline prices strained budgets and made it difficult for some people to pay their bills.
The American Bankers Assn. reported Wednesday that the seasonally adjusted percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due rose to 4.81 percent in the April-to-June quarter. That followed a delinquency rate of 4.76 percent in the first quarter and was the highest since the association began collecting this information in 1973.
The association's survey also showed that the delinquency rate on a composite of other types of consumer loans, including auto loans and home equity loans, climbed to 2.22 percent in the second quarter, up from 2.03 percent in the first quarter.
"The rise in gas prices is really stretching budgets to the breaking point for some people," said Jim Chessen, the association's chief economist. "Gas prices are taking huge chunks out of wallets, leaving some individuals with little left to meet their financial obligations."
While Chessen mostly blamed high gasoline prices for the rise in credit card delinquencies, other factors also played a role, he said.
With personal savings rates dismally low, people have less of a cushion to absorb the big jumps in energy prices, Chessen said. The personal savings rate dipped to a record low of negative 0.6 percent in July.
Robert Baker, a certified credit counselor for Housing Credit Counseling Inc. in Lawrence, said that he was seeing an increasing number of clients relying on credit to pay for big-ticket essentials, from car repairs to medical care.
As many employees see their insurance premiums rise and benefits decline, Baker said, health care payments increasingly are ending up on plastic.
"It's kind of amazing to see," Baker said. "I go to my chiropractor, and he's got the credit card machine right there on the desk."
Rising balances undoubtedly are contributing to the rise in delinquencies, Baker said. And with many credit card companies now boosting their minimum-payment requirements, the problem could get worse before it gets better.
"I've already seen a client with a real substantial minimum balance on a credit card - it went from $290 to $430," Baker said. "That could be another significant factor in late fees."
Chessen said that rising borrowing costs also probably contributed to the spike in credit card delinquencies.
The Federal Reserve has been tightening credit since June 2004. That has caused commercial banks' prime lending rate to rise to 6.75 percent, the highest in four years. These rates are used for many short-term consumer loans, including some credit cards and popular home equity lines of credit.
After Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices jumped past $3 a gallon before calming down. Although damage to oil facilities was less than feared from Hurricane Rita, economists expect gasoline prices to remain high.
The double blow from the two hurricanes is expected to slow overall economic activity and hiring in the months ahead, economists say.
Against this backdrop, credit card delinquencies are likely to remain high in the coming quarters, Chessen suggested.