updated 9/27/2006 9:42:30 AM ET 2006-09-27T13:42:30

Late payments on credit card bills edged up this past spring, when high energy prices were squeezing the finances of some people and making it hard to pay bills on time.

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The American Bankers Association, in its quarterly survey of consumer loans, reported Wednesday that the percentage of credit card payments 30 or more days past due increased to 4.41 percent in the April-to-June quarter, up slightly from 4.40 percent during the January-March period.

"High gas prices and Federal Reserve interest-rate hikes have left consumers with less money in their pockets. As a consequence, consumers have less money leftover to meet all their expenses, including paying back their loans," said James Chessen, the association's chief economist, in explaining the increase in late payments in the second quarter.

Since then, gasoline and other energy prices have dropped and the Fed has halted its rate-raising campaign. The central bank last week decided for the second straight meeting to hold rates steady _ a move that gives borrowers some more breathing room.

"The financial squeeze may ease a bit in the third quarter as the Fed has stopped raising rates and prices at the pump are down more than 17 percent since the end of June," Chessen said.

The quarterly survey is based on information supplied by more than 300 banks nationwide.

The survey also showed that the delinquency rate on a composite of other types of consumer loans, including auto and certain home equity loans, climbed to 1.96 percent in the second quarter, from 1.94 percent in the first quarter.

The cooling of the once-hot housing market, meanwhile, has important implications on consumers and the overall economy, Chessen said.

Consumers who watched their homes rise rapidly in value over the last several years were inclined to spend and borrow against their homes _ treating them like cash machines _ to support their spending ways. But home prices have since lost altitude.

The National Association of Realtors reported Monday that the annual price of existing homes declined in August for the first time in more than a decade.

"Up until now, rising home values have increased wealth, been a source of liquidity for borrowers and allowed consumers to spend out of savings," Chessen observed. "It's a different world now, and consumers will need to be more careful in managing their finances."

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Data: Latest rates in the US

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Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 3.79%
$30K home equity loan FICO 4.99%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.69%
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