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U.S. consumers borrow heavily for second straight month

Published February 7, 2012 9:49 pm

Debt • Are consumers more confident in economy or do data show impact of flat wages?
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Washington • Americans accelerated their borrowing in December for the second straight month, running up more credit card debt and taking out loans to buy cars and attend school.

Consumer borrowing rose by $19.3 billion in December after a $20.4 billion gain in November, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday. The two increases were the biggest monthly gains in a decade.

Total consumer borrowing is at a seasonally adjusted $2.5 trillion. That nearly matches the pre-recession borrowing level. It's up 4.4 percent from the September 2010 post-recession low.

The rise in borrowing could be a sign that Americans are more confident in the economy. But consumers are also borrowing more at a time when their wages haven't kept pace with inflation.

The outlook for hiring has improved, which could help boost consumer spending. In January, companies added 243,000 net jobs. The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, the lowest in three years.

Consumer spending was flat in December, and the savings rate rose. Consumer spending is important because it accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

Americans borrowed more on their credit cards in December, probably to buy holiday gifts. But the bulk of December's increase was because consumers took out more auto loans and student loans. The category that includes both rose by $16.6 billion.

Ellen Zentner, an economist at Nomura Securities in New York, said that half the gain in that category came from higher student loans, which suggests the weak economy is persuading more people to go back to school. She said the gains in credit card debt were coming from very low levels.

"These increases could be a little glimmer of hope that households are starting to feel more comfortable about using their credit cards," Zentner said.

Gregory Daco, an economist at Global Insight, said that the consumer sector was still facing problems.

"Despite recent good economic news from the January employment report and business surveys, euphoria should be tempered by still-high unemployment, still-high levels of debt and still-low household wealth," Daco said.

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