01/05/2012 03:59 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2012

Consumer Delinquencies Fell To Lowest Level In Four Years

WASHINGTON, Jan 4 (Reuters) - More consumers made their home equity loan payments on time in the third quarter of 2011 and a broad measure of consumer delinquencies fell to its lowest point in four years, according to data released on Thursday by the American Bankers Association.

The group said consumers are making progress on digging out of debt.

"Subtle improvements in the economy such as lower gas prices and a better job market have reduced some of the stresses facing consumers," said ABA Chief Economist James Chessen.

The delinquency rate on home equity loans fell to 4.12 percent of all accounts in the third quarter, from 4.38 percent in the second quarter.

A broader delinquency measure, which includes eight categories such as payments on auto and personal loans, fell to 2.59 percent in the third quarter from 2.88 in the second quarter, its lowest level since the third quarter of 2007.

But consumers fared worse in the third quarter in some categories measured by the ABA.

Credit card delinquencies edged up slightly to 3.25 percent in the third quarter from 3.22 percent in the second.

Delinquencies on home equity lines of credit also ticked up slightly - to 1.93 percent in the third quarter from 1.91 percent in the second quarter.

The ABA defines delinquency as a late payment that is at least 30 days overdue.

Chessen expects the composite index to continue to fall, thanks in part to a brightening economic outlook.

Unemployment in the third quarter fell to 9 percent, and GDP growth increased to an annualized rate of 1.8 percent.

But Chessen said job creation and income growth are essential for a continued drop in delinquencies and he warned against the sputtering housing market's potential drag.

"Improvement in delinquencies over the next year hinges on the housing market, which still poses an enormous challenge to continued economic growth," he said.

(Reporting By Alexandra Alper; editing by Andre Grenon)