CHICAGO -- The national 60-day auto delinquency rate experienced a noteworthy drop between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008, falling nearly 18 percent (from 0.79 percent to 0.65 percent), according to a trend report on the auto lending industry for the first quarter of 2008 by TransUnion.

Year over year, auto loan delinquency rates have remained essentially flat, moving from 0.64 percent to 0.65 percent. Historically, there is a decrease in 60-day auto loan delinquency between the fourth and first quarters, however the 18 percent drop is the sharpest in four years.

Auto loan delinquency (the ratio of borrowers 60 or more days past due) was highest in Louisiana at 1.19 percent, followed by Alabama at 1.07 percent. The lowest auto loan delinquency rates were found in North Dakota (0.30 percent), Montana (0.35 percent) and Wyoming (0.37 percent).

In another sign of a potentially better auto finance market, average auto debt nationally rose 0.75 percent in the first quarter of 2008 to $12,833. Year over year, the increase is even greater (1.88 percent) as the national average has risen nearly $240 from $12,597 in the first quarter of 2007.

The steepest increases in average auto debt occurred in Alabama (4.2 percent growth), Louisiana (2.9 percent) and Maine (2.6 percent), while the District of Columbia experienced the sharpest drop in average auto debt (-4.0 percent) followed by Hawaii (-2.2 percent). For auto debt, the largest state average was in Nevada at $16,034 followed by Arizona at $15,272. The lowest average auto debt was in Michigan at $10,610.

"The availability of home equity for financing auto purchases has diminished significantly in states like Nevada and Arizona, thus contributing to higher auto loan debt," said Peter Turek, automotive vice president in TransUnion's financial services group. "Even states that have the highest 60-day delinquency rates like Louisiana and Alabama have shown a decrease over the prior quarter. According to the IRS, individual income tax refunds were larger (up 3.5 percent) and consumers filed earlier than in the previous year. It is plausible the tax refunds from the government are helping consumers with their debt burden."

TransUnion expects a continued rise in average auto debt as consumers seek a solution to higher energy prices. One such solution could involve consumers trading out of vehicles that have lost value or have lower payments for newer, more fuel-efficient cars, thereby leading to higher overall debt as the new auto loans will be further from their respective payoff dates.

"Our current forecasting models indicate that the national 60-day auto delinquency rate is expected to gradually rise from a value of 0.65 percent in the first quarter of 2008 to 0.75 percent by year end," said Turek. "This is not a material difference from the recent high of 0.79 in the fourth quarter of 2007, and the gradual increase might generally be attributed to seasonality effects in auto loan delinquency. However, we might see an as-yet unquantified reduction in auto loan delinquency based on this 0.75 percent forecast, as the more conservative underwriting standards and more aggressive collections efforts on the part of many auto lenders gain momentum and begin to bear fruit through the rest of the year and 2009."