By Jill Jaracz


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Better money management, lower consumer confidence and worries about the debt ceiling have helped consumers become more savvy about their finances, finds the American Bankers Association in its most recent Consumer Credit Delinquency Bulletin.

The ABA's report looks at the third quarter of 2012 and finds that bank card delinquencies, or late payments that are 30 or more days overdue, fell to an 18-year low during this period. The overall percentage of bank card delinquencies was at 2.16 percent of all accounts in the third quarter, a drop of 8 basis points. This is the lowest rate since 1994 and it's also below the 15-year average of 2.40 percent. Bank cards are credit cards issued by banks.

The ABA believes this data shows that consumers are getting smarter about their finances and are making strides in improving their personal financial management skills.

"Consumers are paying close attention to their finances as they continue to pay down debt in an uncertain economy," says James Chessen, ABA's chief economist, in a statement.

The ABA's survey covers a number of different types of closed-end loans, or loans for a fixed dollar amount that also have a fixed repayment schedule, and open-end loans, or loans like the ones for credit cards that have a fixed amount of available credit, but can have fluctuating payments and balances depending on how much of the credit limit has been tapped.

While some types of loans in the closed-end category fell, including delinquencies on personal loans, property improvement loans and personal loans, many others increased, including direct auto loans, mobile homes, RV loans, marine loans and home equity loans.

In terms of open-end loans, bank card delinquencies saw a decrease from 2.93 percent to 2.75 percent. Non-card revolving loan delinquencies also fell, but home equity lines of credit delinquencies increased.

While the improvement is good, Chessen notes, it's not spread across categories, which is a phenomenon that was last seen in the first quarter of 2012.

"The lack of broad-based improvement remains a cause for concern," says Chessen. "Some categories have reached historical lows leaving little room for improvement. In addition, slow job growth, continued uncertainty and falling consumer confidence could signal rising delinquencies in the year ahead."

Indeed the attitude of consumers is becoming bleaker. The University of Michigan's Surveys of Consumers, which tracks consumer confidence each month, found in December that even though consumers are more hopeful than they were in 2011, the rates have plummeted from 82.7 in November 2012 to 72.9 in December. The Index of Consumer Expectations also plunged over 17 percent, and the Current Conditions Index fell just over four percent.

"Confidence is lost much more easily than it can be regained, and the pessimism created by not reaching a resolution before year-end will be difficult to reverse even if a settlement is reached soon after the start of 2013. Blaming one side or the other for failure will only increase pessimism as it reflects a dysfunctional system for setting economic policy. Moreover, the details of the settlement matter, as it is hard to imagine a positive reaction if it did not include the extension of the payroll tax cut. While tax hike on top incomes will result in spending declines, ending the payroll tax holiday will result in significant losses in confidence and spending," says Richard Curtin, Surveys of Consumers chief economist, in a statement.

The ending of the payroll tax cut may also play a role in both consumer confidence and credit card behavior throughout this year.

"Many consumers will see their real disposable income take a significant hit in the New Year," says Chessen. "Changes in payroll withholding will decrease disposable income, reducing retail sales and making it more difficult for some people to meet their financial obligations."

Whether that means consumers will simply stop spending and try to decrease their debt remains to be seen, but so far indications point toward that sentiment. "Confidence has already fallen sharply and many consumers have responded by closing their wallets," says Chessen.

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