Last month’s improvements in credit card defaults appears to be an outlier. Credit card defaults have resumed their natural tendency to track rising unemployment.

Inquiring minds are reading U.S. credit card defaults up, signal consumer stress.

Bank of America Corp and Citigroup Inc customers defaulted on their credit card debts in August at the highest rates since the onset of the recession, a sign that the banks’ consumer lending woes are far from over.

“The defaults are a wake-up call for those expecting a V-shaped recovery,” said Elliot Spar, options market strategist at Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

Bank of America said its charge off-rate — loans the company does not expect to be repaid — rose to 14.54 percent in August from 13.81 percent in July.

Citigroup, the largest issuer of MasterCard-branded credit cards, said its charge-off rate rose to 12.14 percent in August from 10.03 percent in July.

The charge-off rates for both Citi and Bank of America, two of the biggest recipients of U.S. government bailouts, were the highest yet during the financial crisis.

JPMorgan Chase & Co, the largest issuer of Visa-branded credit cards, said its charge-off rate rose to 8.73 percent from 7.92 percent, while smaller Discover Financial Services said its rate rose to 9.16 percent from 8.43 percent.

American Express Co’s default rate fell to 8.5 percent from 8.9 percent as the company increased its lending portfolio.

JPMorgan, Discover and Capital One Financial Corp reported late payments on credit cards — an indicator of future defaults — rose in August after several monthly declines.

As credit card losses rose to record highs in recent months, credit card companies closed millions of accounts, trimmed lending limits and slashed rewards.

Lenders are also raising fees and interest rates ahead of a new law that increases protection for consumers. The law is expected to shrink the industry and limit subprime borrowers’ access to plastic money.

Unemployment is likely to rise for another year, then flatten out so it is likely that card defaults keep rising for quite some time.

Rising fees will make up some of the difference. However, the millions of closed accounts and reduced minimums will curtail consumer spending going forward. That is a good thing as well as part of the healing process. Yet, along with secular changes in consumer attitudes, curtailed credit does portend weak earnings growth across the board for a wide array of companies.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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