The rate of credit card payments at least 90 days overdue fell to 0.69% in the first quarter ended March 31 from 0.85% in the year-ago period, a nearly 19% drop, according to credit reporting agency TransUnion.
The first quarter traditionally is when borrowers use income tax returns to pay off holiday season debt. The January-March card delinquency rate also was down from 0.73 in the October-December quarter, when consumers in turn increased credit use to finance holiday purchases.
The report indicates that neither a 2% hike in Social Security payroll taxes nor delayed federal income tax returns harmed borrowers' ability to manage their debt.
The late-payment rate, while improved, remains above historically low levels. The lowest late-payment rate on TransUnion records dating to the mid-1990s was 0.56%, set in the third quarter of 1994. More recently, it was at 0.60% in the second quarter of 2011. The card-delinquency rate has averaged 1.03% since 1992, according to TransUnion, whose credit trend data is based from a sample of 27 million consumer records.
"Even a moderate uptick in delinquency is not a cause for concern, because we are at historic lows," said Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting in TransUnion's financial services business unit.
Many Americans remain careful about how they manage their debt. Average credit card debt per borrower fell 1.7% to $4,878 in the first quarter from $4,962 in the same period last year, TransUnion said. On a quarterly basis, it declined 4.8% from $5,122 in the fourth quarter. TransUnion, however, has forecast that average credit card debt will rise by roughly 8% to $5,446 by the end of this year — the highest mark in four years.
The number of new credit card accounts opened by consumers continued to decline as 2012 drew to a close. While the data lags by a quarter, meaning the latest TransUnion figures cover the October-December period, they show that the number of new credit card accounts fell 1.6% from the same period in 2011.
The share of cards issued to borrowers with less-than-sterling credit slipped to 28.1% from 28.4% a year earlier. That's still above the 27.7% share in the fourth quarter of 2010, however. In the VantageScore credit rating scale, consumers with a score lower than 700 on a scale of 501-990 are considered non-prime borrowers.
Many Americans during the recession curbed spending in favor of paying off debt, particularly credit card balances. The housing downturn also prompted many homeowners to make paying their credit card accounts on time a priority ahead of other financial obligations, such as their mortgage payments.
The national unemployment rate remains at an elevated 7.5%, but that's down from a high of 10% in October 2009. The economy has been steadily adding jobs, home values are rising nationally and the stock market has been on a sustained upswing, with the Dow Jones industrial average index up about 17% this year.