One way to gauge consumers' financial health is to look at their credit payments. If they pay on time, they're generally doing well. If they are in default, that's something to worry about.
The latest S&P/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices, measuring changes in consumer credit defaults, shows the consumer is relatively stable. The credit card default rate is nearly flat from the previous month. So was the mortgage default rate.
Another recent consumer concern has been auto loans. New car prices are at record highs, and the average new car loan is for more than $29,000. Even so, the consumer default rate for auto loans held steady in February – both from the month before and from February 2015.
Three major cities saw significant improvement in creditworthiness. Consumers in Miami had a default rate of 1.07%, down 10 basis points from January. Dallas and New York also reported similar improvements.
David Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices, says the numbers confirm an increasingly positive view of the consumer economy.
"Other positive indicators of the consumer economy include continued strong auto sales and rising home prices,” Blitzer said in a statement. “Measures of consumer confidence and sentiment remain at high levels after slipping a bit in January and February.”
Meanwhile consumers continue to expand their use of credit – which may or may not be a healthy sign. The key is whether they can repay it. The default data suggests that at least so far, they can.
Blitzer credits low and falling gasoline prices for giving consumers a little breathing room and some extra spending money. Economists had expected the sharp decline in gasoline prices over the last 18 months to ignite the economy, something that did not happen.
Increasingly though, it's becoming apparent that the role low fuel prices have played is simply to keep things from getting worse. The U.S. is at least recording some modest growth. Much of the rest of the world is sliding into recession.
Low fuel prices might not be sending consumers on a shopping spree, but they may be helping consumers pay their bills each month.