Americans kept borrowing in first quarter as new mortgages eased

NEW YORK – Americans continued to take on debt in the first quarter, though new mortgage borrowing slowed to the weakest level since late 2014, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report.

Total U.S. household debt rose 0.9% from the prior quarter to $13.67 trillion in the first three months of 2019, about in line with the pace in recent years, New York Fed data showed Tuesday.

New mortgage borrowing fell to $344 billion, the least since the third quarter of 2014, even as borrowing costs dropped. Total home loan balances, which make up the largest portion of U.S. consumer debt, rose 1.3% from the prior quarter to $9.2 trillion, the highest since 2008. Student debt rose to $1.49 trillion while auto loans increased to $1.28 trillion, the highest in data since 2003.

The New York Fed report showed about 2.4% of balances fell into serious delinquency, or more than 90 days late. While that reading was little changed from the fourth quarter, the flow of mortgage balances into delinquency fell to 1.1% from 1.2% as the figure for student loans increased to 9.5% from 9.1%. The rate for credit cards was little changed at 5%, though that was still the highest since 2012.

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The portion of Americans with a car loan climbed to 35% last year from just 20% in 1999, the New York Fed said in a blog post accompanying its quarterly report on household debt and credit. Auto loans first overtook mortgages in 2013 and have pulled further ahead every year since.

The longer-term backdrop helps explain why the New York Fed has been cautious about the quality of auto debt deteriorating. The regional bank flagged in February that more Americans than ever were at least three months behind on their auto loans and said delinquencies were worsening among subprime borrowers.

Matthew Boesler and Gabrielle Coppola are reporters for Bloomberg News.