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Household debt just surpassed the record level reached during the 2008 financial crisis

  • Debt rose $149 billion compared with the last quarter of 2016, with nearly all the gain coming from mortgages.
  • Reaching the peak raises questions about another financial meltdown. But the data show the current structure of debt is substantially different from 2008.

The New York Federal Reserve reports that household debt across the nation has hit a dubious milestone in the first quarter: It surpassed the peak debt level of 2008 at $12.7 trillion.

Household debt — including mortgages, auto and student loans, and credit cards — rose $149 billion compared with the last quarter of 2016, with nearly all the gain coming from mortgages.

Reaching the peak raises questions about whether the backdrop exists again for another financial meltdown. But the data show the current structure of debt is substantially different from 2008.

Mortgage debt has fallen from 73 percent to 68 percent of total debt since the peak. That has come along with a rise in auto- and student-loan debt as a percent of the average American's liabilities.

Debt per capita, which hit $53,000 in 2008, comes in at around $48,000. The level has risen steadily since the bottom in 2013, but not nearly as sharply as it did in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

While the percent of debt 90 days delinquent did rise for the second straight quarter, it remains well below the level of 2008 and substantially below the level of the worst days of the financial panic. The NY Fed says 3.37 percent of all debt outstanding is 90 days or more delinquent; that's up from 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter. But it was 8.7 percent in 2010, and 5.1 percent at 2008.

The reason delinquency has improved is that a lot of the lending is only going to the most creditworthy borrowers. For example, those with credit scores of 760 or greater got 36 percent of all loans in 2008.

But there are some worrisome signs. Credit-card delinquencies crept up and student-loan delinquencies remain stubbornly high in the low double digits. Delinquencies in the $1.2 trillion auto-loan market were down a bit, but they bear watching after a steady rise since 2012.