More American consumers fell behind on their car loan and credit card payments in the last quarter than at any time in more than a decade. The problem is most acute for lower-income consumers who have exhausted the money from government stimulus checks during the Pandemic and who are seeing breaks on rent and student debt expire.
Higher interest rates from the Federal Reserve aren’t helping any. The average credit card interest rate is already at a record high 20.6%, according to Bankrate.com, and could well continue climbing if the Fed tightens further in its fight against inflation. Student loan payments that were paused for more than three years are poised to resume in October. And banks and other lenders have been clamping down on credit lines for months after the spring banking turmoil.
There is, of course, the question of whether the Fed is “happy” with this trend. “The Fed might look at this and say this is the whole purpose of raising rates, to make it more difficult” to make purchases, Torsten Slok, chief economist at Apollo Global Management, told The Washington Post. On the other hand, the Fed may feel a bit of worry that its interest rate increases might finally be hitting consumers too broadly.
The consensus among economists is that there is little risk yet of a looming recession. The economy remains in fundamentally solid shape, the macro data say, with historically low unemployment and price increases finally slowing.
But you know what they say: A recession is when your neighbor is out of work. A depression is when you’re out of work. In other words, economic pain is relative and the averages don’t capture the full damage. Lower-income consumers are clearly in distress. A significant number are leaning on credit cards to hold family finances together. There are 70 million more credit card accounts open now than there were in 2019, and Americans’ total credit card debt just topped $1 trillion for the first time, according to the New York Fed.
Another danger sign among this group of consumers. Shoppers are turning to buy now, pay later services to cover necessities such as groceries. Usage surged 40% in the first two months of 2023, according to data from Adobe Analytics.
Major retailers reporting second-quarter results say that delinquency rates on private-label credit cards are on the rise. Adrian Mitchell, Macy’s chief operating and financial officer, told investors last week that while the company expected delinquencies to climb in the second quarter, the rate of increase “was faster than planned.” The retailer’s revenue declined $84 million year-over-year to $120 million.
Price increases may be moderating, but like other forms of economic pain, inflation isn’t evenly distributed. Prices of essential goods, which make up a larger percentage of the family budget for lower-income consumers, remain higher than they were pre-pandemic. Americans continue to trim discretionary spending and to trade down to off-price and discount retailers.
One sector of the economy to keep an especially close eye on is auto purchases. Delinquencies on auto loan payments, which have already hit rates last seen during the financial crisis of the late 2000s, are also likely to keep climbing, especially for borrowers with shaky credit in the subprime loan segment. During the financial crisis, 5% of those subprime borrowers were 60 days or more past due on their loans; that number today stands at close to 7%, according to Equifax.
And this rise in delinquencies comes as car prices have surged. The average price of a new car in July was about $48,300, up from $37,700 four years ago, according to Cox Automotive. The average used car listed for $27,000, up from $19,400 four years ago.
The timing of this pressure on consumers is a final potential trouble spot. No family likes to scrimp on holiday spending but this year some consumers may find themselves forced to choose between cutting spending now or keeping holiday spending steady with the hope of cutting back in January.