Exclusive: U.S. mortgage delinquencies at new high

SEATTLE Wed Dec 16, 2009 4:22pm EST

An auction sign for a property is seen at the front garden of a foreclosed house in Miami Gardens, Florida September 15, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

An auction sign for a property is seen at the front garden of a foreclosed house in Miami Gardens, Florida September 15, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

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SEATTLE (Reuters) - Mortgage delinquencies rose to a new record in November and could remain high in December as Americans set aside more money for holiday expenses, Equifax Inc data show.

Among U.S. homeowners with mortgages, 7.91 percent were at least 30 days late on payments in November, up from 7.76 percent in October, according to the monthly data the credit bureau provided exclusively to Reuters on Wednesday.

Delinquencies are an indication of future consumer bankruptcy filings, according to Equifax.

"(Consumers) spend a lot more during November and December and they get behind and can't get to their payments," said Myra Hart, senior vice president of Analytical Services at Equifax.

No real improvement is possible until unemployment levels come down, she said in an interview.

"We are about at the peak in terms of delinquencies," Hart said. "Things probably won't improve dramatically until jobs begin to be added. Delinquencies will stay at this level and may improve by small levels but we won't see any real improvement till 2011."

Delinquencies are worse than in previous years. Equifax data showed that 5.83 percent of mortgages were at least 30 days past due in November 2008, and 3.93 percent were past due in November 2007.

The numbers indicate that though the U.S. economy shows signs of improvement after the worst recession since the 1930s, Americans' troubles are far from over.

In November, 42.06 percent of subprime mortgages were delinquent compared with 41.36 percent a month ago and 39.25 percent in June.

Still, Americans seem to be paying more attention to their bills.

Among credit card accounts, 4.62 percent were at least 60 days past due in November, up just 0.04 percent from a month ago and below the May 2009 peak of 4.79 percent, according to the data.

That shows that despite record-high unemployment, more people are attempting to pay off their monthly charges as they shop carefully for the holidays, buying only necessary items, or waiting for discounts on big-ticket items.

Data from the National Retail Federation showed that consumers' holiday shopping so far is at a five-year low.

Also, card issuers have drastically reduced lines of credit to $803 billion and the number of accounts to 93 million, Equifax data show. Both numbers peaked in July 2008.

U.S. consumer outstanding consumer debt has dropped 5 percent or $575 billion from a year ago, data showed, as more Americans paid down debt where they could or got rid of debt through write-downs.

But whether consumers will remain frugal once the economy gains steam is a question.

"For some consumers there's been a pretty big shock here," Hart said. But, she added, "the shock is wearing off."

(Reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman; Editing by Richard Chang)

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