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American Consumer Debt Reflects Country’s Uncertain Financial Future

A newly published report by the New York Federal Reserve discovered that American consumer debt has now climbed over $17 trillion. Delinquency rates on mortgage and credit card payments are also up this quarter. The COVID pandemic certainly did not help with the country’s problem; since 2020, nearly $3 trillion alone has been added to the bill. One of the positives to come out of the COVID financial era was that many homeowners were able to refinance their houses and access better payment options with banks. This boom, however, has ended, and new home loans are now seeming to be taken out at record lows. 

CNBC: Consumer debt passes $17 trillion for the first time despite slide in mortgage demand

By Jeff Cox; May 15, 2023

Total consumer debt hit a fresh new high in the first quarter of 2023, pushing past $17 trillion even amid a sharp pullback in home borrowing.

The total for borrowing across all categories hit $17.05 trillion, an increase of nearly $150 billion, or 0.9% during the January-to-March period, the New York Federal Reserve reported Monday. That took total indebtedness up about $2.9 trillion from the pre-Covid period ended in 2019.

That increase came even though new mortgage originations, including refinancings, totaled just $323.5 billion, the lowest level since the second quarter of 2014. The total was 35% lower than in the fourth quarter of 2022 and 62% below the same period a year ago.

New home loans peaked at $1.22 trillion in the second quarter of 2021 and have been falling since as interest rates have increased. A series of Fed rate cuts helped push 30-year mortgage rates to a low around 2.65% in January 2021.

But rates are now around 6.4%, as the central bank has enacted 10 rate increases totaling 5 percentage points to fight inflation, according to central bank data through Fannie Mae. The higher rates helped push total mortgage debt to $12.04 trillion, up 0.1 percentage point from the fourth quarter.

Borrowers had used the previously lower rates both to buy new homes and to refinance, the latter seeing a boom that appears to have ended.

“The mortgage refinancing boom is over, but its impact will be seen for decades to come,” Andrew Haughwout, director of household and public policy research at the New York Fed, said in a statement accompanying the report.

Fed data shows that about 14 million mortgages were refinanced during the pandemic period starting in March 2020. Some 64% were considered “rate refinances,” or homeowners looking to take advantage of lower borrowing costs. Average savings totaled about $220 per month for those borrowers, according to the New York Fed.

“As a result of significant equity drawdowns, mortgage borrowers reduced their annual payments by tens of billions of dollars, providing additional funding for spending or paydowns in other debt categories,” Haughwout said.

Despite rising rates, mortgage foreclosures remained low. Delinquency rates for all debt increased, up 0.6 percentage point for credit cards to 6.5% and 0.2 percentage point for auto loans to 6.9%. Total delinquency rates moved up 0.2 percentage point to 3%, the highest since the third quarter of 2020.

Student loan debt edged higher to $1.6 trillion and auto loans nudged up as well to $1.56 trillion.

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