| NEW YORK
NEW YORK More U.S. consumers are falling behind on their mortgages, an indication that the housing market has yet to hit bottom, a top credit bureau executive told Reuters.
Dann Adams, president of U.S. Information Systems for Equifax Inc, reported that 7 percent of homeowners with mortgages were at least 30 days late on their loans in February, an increase of more than 50 percent from a year earlier.
He also said 39.8 percent of subprime borrowers were at least 30 days behind on their home mortgage loans, up 23.7 percent from last year.
"I'm trying to find optimism in these numbers, but I'm pretty hard pressed to do that," Adams said, despite a recent burst of relatively positive news that has fueled hope that the U.S. housing market has turned a corner.
Late last month the Commerce Department reported that sales of newly built U.S. single-family homes rose to a 337,000 annual pace in February, the highest in 10 months.
Such news has boosted homebuilder shares, which are up about 45 percent since March 6, according to the Dow Jones U.S. Home Construction Index.
But Adams said the continued increase in mortgage delinquencies revealed in his data foreshadows more foreclosures, short sales and home price declines as homeowners default and banks then repossess the homes to sell them at deep discounts.
LIFELINE OF CREDIT
The Equifax data also reveals the impact of the rise in unemployment, which is at its highest rate since 1983. Employers cut 663,000 jobs in March, sending the national unemployment rate to 8.5 percent, the Labor Department said on Friday.
The rising jobless rate manifests itself in consumers' increasing reliance on credit cards even as lenders try to restrict access to credit, Adams said.
Banks closed 8 million credit card accounts in February, reducing the number of open cards to 400 million from a July 2008 peak of 483 million, according to Equifax data.
Credit limits fell as well, to $3.27 trillion in February from a July 2008 peak of $3.59 trillion.
"Limits are falling because lenders are trying to minimize their losses," Adams said.
The data shows that lenders have good reason to be wary. Bank card delinquency is at its highest level in the past five years. Some 4.5 percent of total balances on bank-issued credit cards were at 60 days past due in February, a 32.7 percent increase from a year earlier.
"Their credit card is their lifeline," he said. (Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)