Economy Kicks Into Higher Gear, With Bank Cards, Mortgages as Evidence

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- U.S. jobless claims were down and retail sales were up last week -- further signs the economy is on the mend.

That trend is even stronger, it appears, in the banking and lending market, as new mortgages and bank card usage are on the upswing, according to a report from Experian.

The credit ratings firm examined retail banking trends for the first quarter of 2013, and reported that:
  • New home mortgages were up 16% on a year-to-year basis.
  • Consumer bank card limits were up 20% over the same period.
  • Bank card delinquencies are down and geographically, the U.S. Midwest is leading the pack in terms of consumer banking growth.

As the report attests, double-digit growth in key consumer banking sectors is a healthy sign for the overall economy. Thus, Experian analysts are seeing more rays of sunlight covering the U.S. financial landscape.

"This year is off to a solid start given continued upward trends in mortgage origination activity,'' says Linda Haran, director of product management at Experian. "With loan delinquency continuing to show exceptional performance, combined with the growth in originations over the past year, we expect to see a strong remainder of the year, and an improving economy can keep this performance going."

Experian delivers some more detailed commentary on the new mortgages and bank card usage front:

On mortgages: Experian says that new applications for mortgage originations have rising steadily over the past eight quarters. That's helped push up home prices, with California leading the way with average home prices of $325,000. But the U.S. Midwest is seeing the strongest new mortgage growth, with originations rising by 27% from last year, up to $101 billion. In contrast, California saw only 6% growth rates for new mortgages, to $92 billion.

Experian also reports that mortgage delinquencies are "at multi-year lows."

On bank cards: Consumers are using their bank credit and debit cards with greater frequency, Experian reports.

The report shows that volume limits on bank cards are up by 20% from last year to this year, an increase of about $11 billion. More banking consumers are seeing bank card lending activity pick up in the first quarter of 2013, with near-prime consumers showing a 42% hike in bank card lending, while prime borrowers saw a 30% growth rate in lending activity.

That, Experian, says, is a sign consumers are willing to take on more debt, and that banks are increasingly willing to give them the green light.

"There is clearly opportunity in the near-prime segment, and lenders are definitely starting to loosen their criteria to acquire some bank card growth," Haran says. "We have always felt that near-prime consumers were ready to take on a little more debt than was being extended to them."

Experian says that consumer banking activity, while on an uptrend, bears watching over the next few months to see if that growth remains sustainable.

For banks and their customers, it's "so far, so good" in 2013.

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