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Buyers seen keeping up with car payments

LOS ANGELES — US car owners are carrying higher auto loan balances but still making timely monthly payments.

Auto loan debt per borrower grew 4.4 percent to $16,769 in the final quarter of 2013 from a year earlier — the 11th consecutive quarter to post an annual increase, according to data set for release Tuesday by the credit reporting agency TransUnion.

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Even so, the US auto loan delinquency rate ended the last three months of last year at 1.14 percent, below the 1.3 percent average quarterly late-payment rate for every October-December quarter going back to 2007, the firm said.

The trend suggests borrowers with auto loans continue to keep up with payments, even as auto loan debt per borrower has grown steadily. It’s up 12 percent since the first quarter of 2011.

Stable fuel prices, low interest rates, and the increased availability of credit helped propel US new car and truck sales up 8 percent to 15.6 million last year. That was the industry’s best year since 2007 and the fourth year in a row sales increased by more than 1 million. New auto loans tend to have higher balances early on, which helps drive up auto loan debt.

Auto loan debt per borrower edged up in the fourth quarter by 0.5 percent from the previous three months. The increase was broad, with every state posting a bump in auto loan debt per borrower in the quarter, TransUnion said.

Typically, the late-payment rate on auto loans, credit cards, and mortgages rises in the October-December quarter as many consumers hit the stores to buy gifts for the holiday season. The shopping sprees bust some consumers’ budgets, forcing them to put off making timely payments.

That seasonal trend also drove up the late-payment rate on auto loans in the last three months of 2013.

The rate of US auto loan payments late by 60 days or more grew to 1.14 percent in the October-December period, rising from 1.04 percent in the previous quarter and 1.09 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, TransUnion said.

The late-payment rate among subprime borrowers, or those whom lenders deem a higher credit risk because of their track record of managing debt, rose to 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter from 5.7 percent in the prior-year period.

Many borrowers typically catch up in the first few months following the holidays, often with the aid of income tax refunds.

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