Canadian debt loads rise to highest level in eight years in second quarter

TORONTO – A new analysis suggests Canadian non-mortgage debt rose to its highest level in nearly a decade during the second quarter.

The latest report of Canadian debt trends by Trans Union found the average consumer’s non-mortgage debt load rose to $26,221 in the second quarter.

That’s up 0.74 per cent from the first quarter of 2012 and up 2.41 per cent from a year earlier.

The credit reporting firm said that’s the highest average debt per person it has seen since it began tracking the variable in 2004.

Trans Union says there was a big increase in auto loans, partly offset by less money drawn on lines of credit.

The average credit-card debt was down from a year ago but up from the first quarter.

A moderately encouraging sign was that delinquency or default levels remained low across the board.

“We are in a unique situation because while it is somewhat disconcerting to see average consumer total debt reach its highest level since we’ve been tracking this variable, Canadian consumers appear to be able to manage this debt as delinquency levels have dropped across all of the major credit vehicles,” said Thomas Higgins, TransUnion’s vice president of analytics and decision services.

“It’s quite possible that this is a trend that will continue as consumers take advantage of the low interest environment. However, if there are any sudden economic shifts such as a significant rise in unemployment, then it’s quite conceivable that delinquencies will rise with debt levels.”

Debt loads on lines of credit were down 0.4 per cent compared to the second-quarter of 2011, and dropped 2.37 per cent from the previous quarter.

Average credit card debt declined 0.93 per cent year-over-year, but was up 2.7 compared to the first quarter of 2012.

Auto loans saw the biggest increases, up 13.25 per cent year-over-year and 3.67 per cent from the first quarter. But defaults were on the decline.

“Auto loan delinquencies stand out most as they are traditionally among the lowest of the major credit types, yet they’ve continued a downward trajectory even while auto debt experienced significant increases.”

Last month, another consumer credit reporting agency, Equifax Canada reported that consumer indebtedness, excluding mortgage debt, grew 3.1 per cent year-over-year in the second quarter, down from 4.4 per cent in the same period of 2011.

The Equifax study also found that high-interest credit card debt fell by 3.8 in the quarter and consumer bankruptcies were down 4.5 per cent from a year earlier. Meanwhile, bank loans and lines of credit showed very moderate growth compared to a year ago.

Consumers have taken advantage of ultra low interest rates since the 2008-9 recession to heap on low-cost debt.

With household debt at an all-time high above 150 per cent of after-tax income, the Bank of Canada has declared it the number one domestic risk to the economy.

Sunny Freeman, The Canadian Press

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