For the first quarter of 2011, the 60-day delinquency rate stood at only 0.49 percent. That's down about 26 percent from the year-ago quarter and down about 41 percent from the first quarter of 2009.
Auto delinquencies have been relatively low for several quarters. Going back to 1999, the previous low point was the second quarter of 2010, at 0.53 percent. The high point was the first quarter of 2001, at 2.39 percent, TransUnion data show.
TransUnion also tracks delinquencies for mortgages and credit cards. Those delinquencies are higher than the auto sector's -- especially for mortgages. About 6.2 percent of mortgage borrowers were delinquent for 60 days or more in the first quarter. But in relative terms, the current trend is toward fewer delinquencies in mortgages and credit cards, too.
"Consumers are paying down their debt; they're a lot more confident," Turek said. "They are feeling confident enough about their employment situation that they are taking advantage of an opportunity to pay down household debt."
TransUnion expects auto delinquencies to continue to decline this year, notwithstanding some seasonal ups and downs. By year end, TransUnion expects auto delinquencies to decline another 15 to 20 percent.
The delinquency rate is the percentage of auto loans and leases that are overdue, Turek said. At this point in the economic cycle, with the economy improving, fewer people are making late payments and more people are taking out loans and leases, he said. Both make for a lower delinquency rate, he said. Going into a recession, he said, the double whammy goes the other way: more people are late with their payments and fewer people are taking on new loans and leases.
"Typically after a downturn like this where you see auto sales rising, the driving factor that you see is an increase in originations," he said. "That puts downward pressure on delinquencies."