U.S. Markets

U.S. household debt tops $14 trillion and reaches new record

(Reuters) - American households added $193 billion of debt in the fourth quarter, driven by a surge in mortgage loans, and overall debt levels rose to a new record at $14.15 trillion, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said on Tuesday.

A man cycles past the Trades housing division built by Gentry Homes in Ewa Beach, Hawaii March 6, 2013. Residents of Oahu's Ewa Beach resort community have access to a perk, one that some say is even better than the beaches: free home-mortgage loans, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The gratis financing comes from the federal farm agency's rural housing program, which was created during the Dust Bowl--and continues to exist--to give poor people living in the U.S. countryside access to credit. Picture taken March 6, 2013. To match Special Report USA-MORTGAGES/USDA REUTERS/Hugh Gentry (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS REAL ESTATE SOCIETY)

Mortgage balances rose by $120 billion in the fourth quarter to $9.56 trillion, the New York Fed said in its quarterly report on household debt. Mortgage originations - pushed up by an increase in refinancing - also rose to $752 billion in the fourth quarter, reaching the highest volume since the fourth quarter of 2005, the report found.

Student loan balances grew by $10 billion in the fourth quarter, a slower pace when compared to five years ago. However, the total $1.51 trillion outstanding in student loan debt could be holding back young consumers trying to build up credit, the researchers found.

Credit card debt, which typically rises in the fourth quarter when consumers are doing their holiday shopping, rose by $46 billion last quarter, an amount economists said was larger than usual.

“Mortgage originations, including refinances, increased significantly in the final quarter of 2019, with auto loan originations also remaining at the brisk pace seen throughout the year,” Wilbert Van Der Klaauw, senior vice president at the New York Fed, said in a statement. “The data also show that transitions into delinquency among credit card borrowers have steadily risen since 2016, notably among younger borrowers.”

Graphic: Share of debt becoming seriously delinquent link: )

Some 2.36% of loans became more than 90 days delinquent in the fourth quarter, up from 2.27% in the third quarter. New foreclosures remained low by historical standards, with 71,000 notations added to credit reports between October and December.

However, delinquencies rose more substantially for credit cards, auto debt and student loans - with young borrowers seeing the biggest increase.

New York Fed economists said the rising delinquencies among borrowers in their 20s and 30s could be related to high levels of student loan debt, which could make it difficult for consumers to afford their bills.

“When the economy is strong you would typically not expect that unless they are changing the lending standards,” Van Der Klaauw said in an interview. “It could also be that the economy is very strong overall but there are some subgroups, and maybe young people in particular, who are not benefiting as much from that.”

Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama