Bank earnings show: Americans got better at paying off debts

Bank Of America

People walk past a Bank of America branch on April 16, 2014 in New York City.

The big banks have been releasing their first quarter earnings reports over the last week, and they’re all over the map: Profits are down at JPMorganChase, up at Wells Fargo.

But one trend is clear from nearly all the banks: Consumers are doing a better job paying down their mortgages and credit cards.

“This is not an unusual phenomenon,” says Nancy Bush, banking analyst and founder of NAB Research, LLC. “It normally goes on after a financial brush with death like the one we had in the years 2005 to 2008.” 

Both consumers and the big banks have changed their ways since those dark days. Banks are more cautious about who they lend to. And, we, the public, are a lot more careful with our credit cards and other loans. 

“Credit card and auto delinquencies have been hovering around all time lows for the last several quarters,” says Steve Chaouki, head of financial services at the credit reporting agency TransUnion.

Look at just about any big bank’s earnings report lately, and the trends are clear. JPMorgan Chase’s earnings, for instance, shows four charts under the heading "delinquency trends". All of them—whether home loans or credit cards—point straight down since 2010.

Total US home loan delinquencies are down more than 12 percent versus last year, according to Black Knight Financial Services. 

But this isn’t just because Americans are getting better at managing debt. Banks have also been much stricter. 

"In order to get a mortgage loan these days, you need to have a high credit score, so these borrowers are already more responsible,” says Kostya Gradushy with Black Knight’s Data & Analytics division. 

But all this responsibility can have a downside for the economy: Careful, responsible Americans tend to spend less - which means retailers won't be thrilled.

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