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Household Finances Consumer debt rises 6.9% on auto lending, instalment loans

Visa credit cards are seen in this file photo.

Jason Reed/Reuters

Canadians' love affair with debt continues. And so far, our ability to sustain high debt levels appears to be holding.

But there are signs of concern in some areas, particularly the oil patch.

The latest numbers on consumer debt show that it is still on the rise, but that Canadians are keeping up with their payments.

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Will that change over the second half of this year? The fallout from the drop in oil prices, particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, is one place to keep a watchful eye on in the coming months.

Consumer debt rose by 6.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2015, reaching $1.54-trillion, particularly as a result of higher levels of auto lending and instalment loans, according to the latest trends report from credit monitoring firm Equifax Inc.

An instalment loan is a loan that is repaid over time with a set payment schedule. Car loans are not only from the big banks; competition is fierce in the segment, with more sub-prime lenders entering the market.

The average debt held by Canadians, excluding mortgages, is up 2.7 per cent to $20,910, Equifax says, based on its database that stores the majority of credit transactions in the country.

But the national 90-days or more delinquency rate remains low at 1.12 per cent.

The wrinkle is that we have yet to see the full impact of job losses and reduced capital spending in the oil sector.

"The situation now is that we are in an environment where there is some uncertainty," Regina Malina, a senior director at Equifax, said. "It's really going to come down to how long it's going to last."

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Alberta is seeing an increase in delinquency rates, and Saskatchewan even more so, Ms. Malina cautions.

"Oil prices and future economic outcomes are still being debated, but the average debt and consumer appetite for new credit are still on the rise. Careful monitoring is more important than ever at this point in time."

One of the hazards to watch out for, observers say, is the impact of a sharp drop in home values in western Canada. Mortgage debt could become problematic if values fall. Personal lines of credit that are secured by home equity could also be threatened.

Two reports expected this week might help provide a little more insight.

The Bank of Canada releases its semi-annual review of the financial system on Thursday; the bank cited "elevated" risks to the financial system in its last policy statement.

And on Friday, Statistics Canada unveils its first-quarter report on debt and wealth.

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