Certain effects of the economic downturn have begun to ease, but one recession-hatched trend persists: Cash-strapped consumers continue to show a preference for paying their credit card bills over their mortgages, TransUnion said.

The Chicago credit bureau's study of 27 million credit records showed that last year when consumers were unable to meet all their financial obligations, they were more likely to fall behind on their mortgages than on their credit cards.

Although consumers' financial situations may be improving, their bill-payment hierarchy continues to buck pre-recession patterns, the study suggests.

In previous decades, consumers were more likely to default on credit cards before letting their mortgage payments fall behind, said Sean Reardon, a consultant with TransUnion's analytic and decision services group.

"When forced to prioritize, consumers have always ranked their securitized assets, such as their home or car payment, first," Reardon said.

But a reversal of the traditional payment hierarchy began to surface during the first quarter of 2008, Reardon said.

For the first time, the percentage of consumers who were keeping up with their credit card payments while delinquent on their mortgage payments surpassed the percentage of consumers who were current on their mortgage payments and behind on their credit card accounts.

When the payment hierarchy flipped approximately three years ago, "most analysts" predicted that the trend would end after the recession. But that was not the case, Reardon said.

In fact, the reversal of the traditional pattern became more widespread, with the percentage of consumers delinquent on their mortgages and current on their credit cards rising to as high 7.4% during the third quarter of 2010, up 310 basis points from 4.3% during the first quarter of 2008, the TransUnion study found.

"The reversal of the traditional payment hierarchy was driven by a perfect storm of falling home prices and the glut of real estate in the market, combined with rising unemployment, Reardon said.

Those forces caused "a kind of economic tsunami" that prompted changes in how consumers viewed their debt obligations, he said.

But TransUnion data from late 2010 suggests the trend reversal may be starting to shift back to traditional patterns.

During the fourth quarter, the percentage of consumers who were behind on their mortgage payments but current on their credit card accounts dropped 16 basis points, to 7.24%.

Meanwhile, the percentage of consumers who were delinquent on their credit card accounts and current on their mortgages fell to 3.03%, its lowest level ever and down 107 basis points from 4.1% during the first quarter of 2008.

The recent decline in consumers delinquent on their mortgages yet current on their credit card accounts "may be a sign that the divergence in the payment hierarchy has peaked," Reardon said.

TransUnion published the study on Tuesday.

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