updated 3/23/2004 10:10:59 AM ET 2004-03-23T15:10:59

The percentage of credit card payments that were past due shot up to a new record in the final quarter of last year, but delinquency rates for some other types of consumer loans dropped, painting a mixed picture of how Americans are handling their debt.

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The seasonally adjusted percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due rose to 4.43 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003, the American Bankers Association reported in a quarterly survey released Tuesday. That surpassed the previous all-time quarterly high of 4.09 percent set in the third quarter of last year.

James Chessen, the association's chief economist, said that credit cards often are used as a "financial bridge" by those who lose their jobs. He said that credit card delinquencies have been at high levels even as the economy has turned around because job growth has been so slow.

"Clearly the improving economy has not yet touched all individuals, particularly those who continue to look for work and may be relying on credit cards to meet their daily living expenses," Chessen said. "The financial strain is increasing as the time between jobs continues to lengthen," he said.

In the latest employment report, there were some 8.2 million people unemployed in February, with the average duration of 20.3 weeks without work. That marked the highest average duration of joblessness in over 20 years.

Sluggish job growth is a sore spot for President Bush, who says the best way to spur meaningful employment is to strengthen economic activity and make his tax cuts permanent. But presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry says the lackluster jobs climate is evidence of the president's poor handling of the economy.

Chessen said it is unusual for credit card delinquencies to go up while other consumer lending delinquencies go down.

The association's survey showed that the delinquency rate on a composite of other types of consumer loans, including auto loans and home equity loans, fell to a seasonally adjusted 1.89 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003. That marked the lowest rate since the beginning of 1995 and was down from 2.14 percent in the third quarter.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in a speech last month, said that American households' finances are generally in good shape as super-low borrowing costs and extra cash from refinancing have helped some people manage their debt.

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