NEW YORK Credit card defaults rose to record highs in April, as Americans lost their jobs and struggled with a deep recession, but delinquencies fell for the first time in five months, suggesting losses could stabilize in the coming months, Fitch Ratings said on Thursday.
Fitch's prime credit card chargeoff index -- which measures loans the companies do not expect to be paid -- climbed 77 basis points to 9.66 percent, its third consecutive record result. It is up 51 percent from a year ago.
However, the rating agency's delinquency index, which measures receivables more than 60 days past due, declined 7 basis points to 4.37 percent. Delinquency rates are considered an indicator of future credit losses for card companies.
"At this point, any sign of a pullback from the rate of acceleration in delinquencies is welcome news," Fitch Managing Director Michael Dean said in a statement.
"Whether it develops into a trend remains to be seen and since it will take time to work through, we expect continued increases in chargeoffs over the next few months," he added.
Fitch expects chargeoffs to exceed 10 percent in the coming months, and to remain elevated through the first quarter of 2010, when unemployment -- currently at 8.9 percent -- is expected to peak.
American Express Co, the largest U.S. credit card company by sales; Citigroup Inc, a big issuer of MasterCard cards; and Bank of America Corp, the largest U.S. bank, reported credit card default rates rose over 10 percent in April.
If credit card losses across the industry surpass 10 percent this year, loan losses could top $70 billion.
However, "the recent improvement in the delinquency rate could foreshadow a peak in chargeoffs later this year instead," Senior Director Cynthia Ullrich said.
Credit card lenders are trying to protect themselves by tightening credit limits, raising standards and closing accounts. They have also been slashing rewards, increasing interest rates and boosting fees to cushion against further losses.
(Reporting by Juan Lagorio; Editing by Richard Chang)