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Paying Off Credit Debt Is Bad? Consumer Sentiment Makes It Look That Way

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Consumers are doing a much better job paying their credit card bills, but is that a sign of stronger consumer sentiment or a debt reduction move by cardholders who believe the economy is weakening?

Those are fair questions to ask, considering consumer sentiment -- a leading indicator of the nation's economic health -- has fallen below where financial analysts expected it to be.

According to the University of Michigan's benchmark consumer sentiment index for April, confidence in the economy fell to 81.8 from an 84.1 ranking in March.

Economists had expected a climb to 84.7 for April, so the dip signals that consumers aren't buying into current talk of a robust economic recovery.

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So Americans are hunkering down, albeit incrementally, and using extra household cash to pay down credit card debt? Could be, but the fall-off in card debt may be just something that happens in the first quarter of most years.

That argument is bolstered by data from TransUnion, the credit scoring firm. The Chicago company's latest Industry Insights Report says the nation's credit card delinquency rate (defined as the ratio of borrowers 90 days or more late paying their credit card bills) fell from 1.51% in the first quarter of last year to 1.37% in the first quarter of 2014.

In that time the average consumer credit card debt per borrower also fell, from $5,201 to $5,164.

TransUnion says cardholders have been diligent about paying off their holiday spending debt from late last year, and that's not unusual.

"We generally see lower credit card delinquency rates and balances in the first quarter of the year as many consumers pay down credit cards that they charged up during the holiday season," said Ezra Becker, a vice president of research at TransUnion. "Some consumers who receive tax refunds near the end of the first quarter also use these funds to help pay off debts, including their credit cards."

The bigger picture for the credit card is still positive, largely because of lower delinquency rates and more cards hitting the marketplace.

"We see some positive signs in the market with more credit cards being issued, although the sector as a whole is growing at a small rate," says Toni Guitart, a director of research at TransUnion. "It is also encouraging that delinquency levels have dropped on a year-over-year basis even though the share of non-prime consumers gaining access to card credit has increased. Together, these findings point to a healthy credit market."

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