A record proportion of U.S. mortgages were in foreclosure or at least one payment past due in the fourth quarter, according to industry data showing the fragile state of the recovery in the housing market.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said on Friday the combination of loans in foreclosure and one payment in arrears was 15.02 percent on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the highest ever in the survey.

However, the delinquency rate for mortgages on one-to-four-unit residential properties fell to a seasonally adjusted rate of 9.47 percent of all loans outstanding as of the end of the fourth quarter of 2009, down from 9.64 percent in the third quarter but up from 7.88 percent in the same quarter a year earlier, the MBA said in its National Delinquency Survey.

This drop in the delinquency rate is good news and shows that the problem may not get much bigger. But it is still a big problem, Jay Brinkmann, MBA chief economist told Reuters in an interview.

In particular, the 30-day delinquency rate showed a sizable drop in the fourth quarter, a strong sign that the market may be seeing the beginning of the end of the unprecedented wave of mortgage delinquencies, he said.

Brinkmann said the drop is important because 30-day delinquencies have historically been a leading indicator of serious delinquencies and foreclosures.

On a historical basis, there is usually a large spike in short-term delinquencies at the end of the year. But 30-day delinquencies fell to 3.63 percent from 3.79 percent.

Only three times before in the history of the MBA survey has the non-seasonally adjusted 30-day delinquency rate dropped between the third and fourth quarter, and never by this magnitude, Brinkmann said.

Another apparent good sign is a drop in the rate of new foreclosures started.

The percentage of loans on which foreclosure actions were started fell to 1.20 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 1.42 percent in the third quarter but up from 1.08 percent in the same quarter a year earlier, the MBA said.

The drop in new foreclosures started may be temporary, however, because we continue to see large increases in loans 90 days or more past due, Brinkmann said.

Typically, 30-day delinquencies account for the largest share of all delinquencies. But loans 90 days or more past due now account for half of all delinquencies, the highest share in the history of the MBA survey and double the share only two years ago, he said.

Brinkmann said despite the drop in short-term delinquencies, foreclosure rates could continue to climb, however, based on the ability of borrowers 90 days or more delinquent to solve their problems.

The U.S. foreclosure inventory rate for all loans was 4.58 percent in the fourth quarter, up from 4.47 percent in the third quarter and from 3.30 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008.

A sizable number of the loans in the 90-plus day delinquent bucket are in loan modification programs. They are carried as delinquent until borrowers demonstrate they will make the payments agreed to in the plans.

The pattern of mortgage delinquencies now very much follows the pattern of unemployment, which was at 9.7 percent in January, according to the Labor Department.

Therefore, until the issue of this large segment of long-term unemployed is resolved, many of the longer-term mortgage delinquencies will remain a problem with a strong likelihood of turning into foreclosures down the road, said Brinkmann.

President Barack Obama will use a campaign stop for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Friday to announce a new initiative to help support homeowners in five states hit hardest by the U.S. housing crisis.

An administration official said Obama would announce he is designating $1.5 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to fund programs at local Housing Finance Agencies in California, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan.

The records are based on MBA data dating back to 1972.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)