Steady improvements in credit card defaults and late payment rates have stalled after about 18 months, a sign that card users are returning to more normal payment patterns.
The top six credit card-issuing banks posted mixed results for their customers' payment behavior in October, with three reporting small increases in default rates and three reporting slight declines.
Similarly, four of the banks reported drops in the rates of payments late by 30 days or more, known as delinquency in the industry, while two reported small upticks.
The results were similar in September, breaking a consistent downward trend in both measures since early 2010.
"The improvements are tapering off," said Mike Dean, a managing director with Fitch Ratings.
What is emerging now appears to be a return to seasonal patterns that predated the Great Recession. Typically, consumers were more likely to be late with payments in the fall and they'd make up for those lapses after the beginning of the new year.
The pattern hasn't completely emerged yet, said Jeff Hibbs, a credit analyst at Moody's Investor Services. That's partly because the figures now are at or near historic lows.
Citigroup's card division, for example, reported that payments were 35 or more days late on just 3.26 percent of balances on an annualized basis. That figure was 6.06 percent in March 2010. Discover Financial Services said its credit card customers made late payments last month on just 2.48 percent of balances, a rate the company hadn't hit as far back as December 2006. And industry leader American Express Co. posted a 1.5 percent delinquency rate _ an uptick from 1.4 percent in September but still lower than the company reported in early 2007.
Similarly, Amex reported a default rate of just 2.7 percent for October, the lowest in the business. Discover's default rate was 3.26 percent, and Capital One Financial Corp. posted a rate of 3.96 percent.
The other major issuers have higher rates: Bank of America was at 5.98 percent, Citibank at 5.66 percent and Chase at 4.18 percent, but those rates about half what they were a year and a half ago.
There are a number of reasons for the low default and delinquency rates. One is that card companies cut off millions of borrowers as they had trouble making payments when the housing crisis hit and unemployment started ratcheting higher.
Moody's Investor Services estimates that banks wrote off more than $70 billion in unpaid credit card debt from late 2008 through the end of last year.
Consumers who defaulted on cards in the years from 2008 to 2010 have been unable to get new credit, which has helped to keep problem payment rates from rising.
That may be changing. Credit reporting agency TransUnion on Tuesday said that in June through September, almost a quarter million more cards were issued to consumers with credit scores that indicate some payment problems in the past.
Hibbs said it's expected that banks would start expanding their card businesses. Other indicators also point to a bit of a loosening in credit, he noted. And that could bring more people who will have trouble paying their bills back into the mix.
Nevertheless, Moody's continues to expect a renewed drop in late payments in the spring, which will translate into lower defaults a few months later. The agency expects the industrywide default rate to drop below 4 percent in 2012, from about 5.3 percent now.