A growing share of Americans continue to miss payments on their home loans, according to data released today by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). The group reported that 7.88% of residential mortgages outstanding were past-due in 2008’s fourth quarter.

It represents the highest overall delinquency rate recorded by the MBA, which began collecting such information in 1972. One significant factor in the record-high figure? Job losses. “The delinquency rates continue to climb across the board for prime fixed-rate and subprime fixed-rate loans, [which are] loans whose performance is driven by the loss of jobs or income rather than changes in payments,” said Jay Brinkmann, the MBA’s chief economist. According to the data, 3.92% of prime fixed-rate loans were past due in 2008’s fourth quarter, which represents a year-over-year increase of 136%. Subprime fixed-rate loan delinquencies jumped 418% on an annual basis, to 9.69% of loans outstanding.

Such trends illustrate that “we are moving beyond a problem driven by” adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and overbuilding, Brinkmann said, but no one really knows whether that’s good or bad. “Subprime ARMs are clearly still a problem, but there are some signs that that problem may be diminishing,” said Brinkman, who says 30-day delinquencies among subprime ARMs have fallen back to 2007 levels. Given that the industry essentially stopped writing subprime ARM loans in early 2007, that means that “the reset problem (where borrowers’ payments increase significantly, perhaps beyond their budget in such times) is largely behind us,” Brinkman asserted.

Foreclosure starts—the entrance of a home into the default process—remained level in the fourth quarter, which certainly beats another quarterly or yearly increase in such a stat. But Brinkmann cautioned against seeing that figure as a sign of recovery. So many lenders, states, and localities have instituted foreclosure moratoriums that it is hard to tell whether a leveling of foreclosure starts signifies a positive trend or just an indication of delays in the foreclosure process.

MBA’s own data points to the “delay” answer. Inventories of real-estate owned (REOs) by lenders and banks rose significantly while foreclosure starts remained steady in the fourth quarter.

Additionally, the percentage of mortgages more than 90 days past due almost tripled, rising 268% to 6.30%, in the fourth quarter. Borrowers may be trying to qualify for some of the federal mortgage refinancing alternatives available by letting their mortgage payments lapse for three months; one program requires borrowers to be at least three payments past due to qualify.

Servicers and lenders may have also have been holding off on foreclosure sales for the past few months, waiting to see what the government might do to address the crisis. Or, homes may simply be staying in foreclosure longer as banks and lenders struggle to respond to the wave of mortgage defaults that they are currently encountering.

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.