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U.S. Consumers cut back on credit card use in April

Published June 8, 2012 12:22 am

Debt • But total borrowing up, driven by auto and student loans.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Americans cut back sharply on their credit card purchases in April, a sign that some may be worried about the slowdown in hiring.

The Federal Reserve said Thursday that consumers increased borrowing by $6.5 billion in April, just half of the March gain.

The increase was driven by a $9.96 billion rise in a category that includes auto and student loans. That offset a $3.4 billion drop in credit card debt, the first decline since January.

Total borrowing rose to a seasonally adjusted $2.55 trillion. That was slightly below the all-time high of $2.58 trillion reached in July 2008, eight months after the Great Recession began.

Consumers had begun to use credit cards more often at the start of the year, which coincided with solid job gains this winter. But hiring slowed sharply in April and May, which may have forced some to cut back on using their plastic.

Employers added just 69,000 jobs in May, the fewest in a year, and just 77,000 jobs in April.

The economy added 252,000 jobs a month from December through February. Since then, job growth has slowed to a lackluster 96,000 a month.

More borrowing is generally viewed as a healthy sign for the economy. It suggests consumers are gaining confidence and growing more comfortable taking on debt.

But if consumers are cutting back on credit card debt, it may suggest they are worried about the economy.

Consumer spending grew in the first three months of the year at the fastest pace since late 2010. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

Still, most U.S. households are spending more while saving less. They saved just 3.6 percent of their after-tax income in the January-March quarter, down from 4.2 percent in the October-December quarter.

Another reason for the increased borrowing has been people having trouble finding jobs and deciding to go back to school. Student loan debt has been rising sharply.

Households began borrowing less and saving more when the recession began and unemployment surged. While the expectation is that consumers are ready to resume borrowing, they are not expected to load up on debt the way they did during the housing boom of the last decade.

The Federal Reserve's borrowing report covers auto loans, student loans and credit cards. It excludes mortgages, home equity loans and other loans tied to real estate.