Household debt total passes $15 trillion for the first time

U.S. dollar banknotes are seen in this photo illustration.

Jose Luis Gonzalez | Illustration | Reuters

Household debt passed $15 trillion for the first time in the third quarter as rising prices pushed up balances for homes and autos, the New York Federal Reserve reported Tuesday.

Mortgages rose 2.2% to nearly $10.7 trillion and autos increased $28 billion, part of an overall $286 billion increase in debt that brought the total household burden to $15.24 trillion, a 1.9% boost, or $286 billion, from the second quarter.

The household debt growth represented a 6.2% gain from the same period a year ago.

The report covered the July to September period, part of a time when U.S. economic growth slowed to a 2% annualized pace amid worries over surging inflation and a pandemic-induced slowdown.

Housing debt accelerated with $1.11 trillion in newly originated mortgages, more than two-thirds of which came from those with credit scores above 760 and just 2% to subprime borrowers, the Fed report said. The trend comes with median housing prices up 19.9% for the quarter to more than $404,700, according to the Census Bureau.

As students went back to college, education loan debt crept higher by $14 billion to $1.58 trillion, according to the report. Just 5.3% of the loans were in serious delinquent or default status as a government forbearance program extends through Jan. 31, 2022.

Despite worries over growth, credit card balances increased by $17 billion to around $800 billion for the quarter, reversing a trend that began with the pandemic as consumers paid down revolving debt.

“As pandemic relief efforts wind down, we are beginning to see the reversal of some of the credit card balance trends seen during the pandemic, namely reduced consumption and the paying down of balances,” said Donghoon Lee, a New York Fed research officer. “At the same time, as pandemic restrictions are lifted and consumption normalizes, credit card usage and balances are resuming their pre-pandemic trends, although from lower levels.”

Officials stressed that even with the rising debt loads, delinquency rates remain low and are declining, due in large part to an influx of government payments that have led to elevated levels of saving and personal income.

Credit scores for mortgage originations “remain very high,” the report said, even though they have declined slightly since the early days of the pandemic.

Newly originated auto loans totaled $199 billion, a slight decline from the previous quarter’s pace and reflective of higher loan amounts rather than a greater volume. New auto prices rose 8.7% in September from a year ago, while used car and truck prices climbed 24.4%, according to Labor Department data.

Consumers see escalating inflation ahead.

A separate report Monday from the New York Fed showed that while inflation expectations over the three-month horizon were unchanged at 4.2%, the one-year outlook sees prices rising 5.7%, the highest in a data series that goes back to 2013.

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