Americans increased their borrowing in the final three months last year and, in a worrisome note, are struggling more with auto and student loans, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Outstanding household debt rose a modest 1%, or $117 billion, from the third quarter as families became more comfortable with higher credit card balances, according to the bank's quarterly report, released Tuesday.
The report's findings are consistent with trends showing that the widespread reduction in household debt — the after-effects of the Great Recession — has ended at more sustainable levels. Even with the uptick, household debt remains around 6.7% below its peak of $12.7 trillion in the third quarter of 2008, the report said.
Fourth-quarter debt levels rose across the board, with mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and student debt and home-equity lines all showing increases from the third quarter.
Overall delinquency rates — loans that are 90 days or more past due — were unchanged at 4.3%. Delinquent mortgage and credit card debt fell, but auto loan delinquencies rose to 3.5% from 3.1%. The biggest trouble spot remained student loans, which saw delinquencies reach an alarming 11.3%, up from 11.1% in the third quarter.
By contrast, only 3.1% of mortgage loans were delinquent, though that level is far higher than before the Great Recession, when mortgage delinquencies were consistently around 1% to 1.5%.
Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and as a result linger on borrowers' credit reports longer, creating increasing pools of delinquent debt. But the New York Fed said the survey also reflected "high inflows" of new delinquency. Student debt totals rose $31 billion in the quarter to nearly $1.2 trillion.
Bank officials said both the high amount of student debt and borrowers' increasing difficulty in repaying it were having affecting borrowers' ability to buy houses or move out on their own.
"Although we've seen an overall improvement in delinquency rates since the Great Recession, the increasing trend in student loan balances and delinquencies is concerning," said Donghoon Lee, a research officer at the bank. "Student loan delinquencies and repayment problems appear to be reducing borrowers' ability to form their own households."