Despite the continuing wave of foreclosures and weakness in the housing and consumer-credit markets, a new report points to one economic bright spot: Mortgage and credit-card delinquencies, both down significantly in 2010, are expected to continue to fall next year - in the case of mortgages, by 20 percent.
Credit agency TransUnion said Tuesday that the national mortgage-delinquency rate, which measures the portion of mortgage borrowers at least 60 days past due, is expected to dip below 5 percent by the end of 2011 for the first time since the end of 2008.
That rate would still be far above the historical average of 1.5 percent to 2 percent, a rate not seen since the beginning of 2007, according to TransUnion. One of the nation's three major credit agencies, TransUnion collects data on nearly every U.S. consumer, and bases its survey on a sample of 27 million credit files.
"We're starting to move in the right direction after a long period of moving in the wrong direction," said Steve Chaouki, TransUnion's group vice president for financial services.
The delinquency rate for Pennsylvania mortgage borrowers is also expected to drop. TransUnion estimates that 4.24 percent of Pennsylvania mortgage borrowers are currently at least 60 days behind. By the end of 2011, it expects that rate to drop nearly 15 percent, to 3.62 percent.
Chaouki said Pennsylvania's rates were helped because some of its communities, such as Pittsburgh, "never saw the huge increases" in home prices that characterized the housing bubble.
TransUnion's report said the Philadelphia region's mortgage delinquencies had leveled off over the last year, though at a historically high rate. In 2010's third quarter, 5.64 percent of the metropolitan area's mortgage borrowers were severely delinquent - up from 2.08 percent at the start of 2007.
Overall, Chaouki said the dip in delinquencies reflected positive trends in consumers' management of credit. "Households are improving their balance sheets, and households are using credit less," he said.
But he said the data also reflect the magnitude of the financial crisis and recession, since loans can vanish from credit data once they are charged off or enter the foreclosure process - a significant factor with about 4 million homes in late-stage delinquency or foreclosure, according to Moody's Analytics.
Chaouki said TransUnion uses 60-day delinquency as a mortgage benchmark because that reflects "severe delinquency" for what is typically the largest and most important bill a consumer pays.
"At that point, you owe three payments, and that's a very onerous amount for most people," he said.
TransUnion said the portion of Americans at least 90 days late on credit cards was expected to drop more than 10 percent next year both nationally and in Pennsylvania.
Chaouki said the national rate of credit-card delinquencies, now 0.75 percent, was expected to drop to 0.67 percent by the end of 2011 - lower than any quarter since 1995. He said that partly reflected a rise in the number of Americans who don't have a general-purpose, bank-issued credit card, to 78 million from 70 million a year ago.