05/09/2012 03:52 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian debt loads getting lighter

Canadians appear to be taking endless warnings from policymakers to heart by borrowing less and getting their financial houses in order ahead of possible interest rate hikes.

A report on consumer credit released by CIBC Wednesday found that the total amount of outstanding consumer debt in Canada actually declined in March.

When you smooth out monthly fluctuations, it made for the slowest monthly pace of gain we've seen since May 2011.

That means Canadians' overall consumer debt loads are growing at 0.1 per cent, the slowest pace since 1993.

"Regardless of how you measure it, there is a clear slowing trend in the pace of growth in household credit," the bank's team of economists wrote in the report. It's the first time since 2002 that consumer credit in Canada is rising slower than it is in the United States.

There's been a slight uptick in the amount of money Canadians are carrying on their lines of credit, but the bank report theorized that's likely due to people transferring credit card balances (which are now in negative territory) on to lines of credit.

Mortgage debt also slowing

Lines of credit generally have much lower interest rates than credit cards.

Delinquency rates are inching higher, but at below 1.2 per cent for credit cards and below 0.3 per cent for lines of credit, both are still under recent highs and well within normal levels.

There are signs of moderation on the mortgage front, too.

As of March 2012, the total value of outstanding mortgage debt in Canada had increased by 6.3 per cent on an annual basis. That's under the 7.3 per cent level it's been at for much of the past two years, and still well below the average level of the past decade.

The mortgage arrears rate — tracking people who are behind on their mortgage payments — is also falling. It's now at 0.4 per cent of mortgagees, down from 0.5 per cent during the recession.

"The current rate is still double the rate seen before the recession but is significantly below rates we have seen in previous recessions," CIBC noted in its report.

"As for the housing market, there is no debate about the fact that the market is overshooting," the bank said, but there are a few factors at play to cause the bank to predict a "gradual softening" in home prices and not a "violent correction."

"We continue to call for a gradual softening in the market, with prices potentially falling by around 10 per cent in the coming year or two," CIBC said.