5 Mar 2024

Half a million NZ consumers in debt arrears - report

5:59 am on 5 March 2024
New Zealand Dollar Bar Graph (On blue background)

Debt arrears have risen to the highest level in seven years. Photo: 123RF

A summer credit crunch and squeezed business and consumer budgets has sent debt arrears to the highest level in seven years.

Credit reporting firm Centrix says 480,000 consumers were in arrears in January - the highest since early 2017 - making up about 13.1 percent of active borrowers and nearly 10 percent higher than a year ago.

"We tend to observe arrears cycles peak at this time of year, following the festive season and summer holiday break, although [it's] important to note that the majority of reported arrears have only missed one payment and are likely to self-correct," Centrix managing director Keith McLaughlin said.

"However, the financial strain skews towards the younger demographics. Those under 25 years old are more prone to cash flow problems due to likely lower incomes, limited savings and less financial experience."

"We are now starting to see the squeeze flow onto 30-40 year olds, who are likely more financially stable but have perhaps used their buffers."

Arrears in mortgages increased to pre-Covid levels, with 1.5 percent behind in repayments, with rising levels of arrears for car loans, telecommunications, personal loans, and buy-now-pay-later (BNPL).

The demand for credit increased - notably for credit cards and BNPL - with a more subdued rise for mortgages, and a 12 percent slide in vehicle loans, which was put down to the end of the clean car discount scheme.

Businesses were also feeling the pressure of reduced spending, with company liquidations rising 16 percent on last year and business defaults 28 percent higher. The retail sector was the hardest hit, followed by construction, hospitality, and transport.

"We've also observed an upswing in mortgage stress for a sole proprietor, with many needing to leverage their home equity to continue funding their businesses - a concerning trend that could spell trouble for these owners in the long term," McLaughlin said.

He expected 2024 to be tough for those in debt, and even with the Reserve Bank suggesting no more rate rises there were still many households needing to refix their mortgages this year.

"It's likely this will add to problems for many households as early trends show the seasonal uptick in consumer arrears in January 2024."

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