Credit card data may reflect optimism

Associated Press / February 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Americans are putting more charges on their credit cards after more than two years of cutting back.

The first increase in credit card debt since the financial crisis hit helped to boost overall consumer borrowing 3 percent in December, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $2.41 trillion, the Federal Reserve said. It was the third straight monthly gain.

Borrowing in the category that includes credit cards rose 3.5 percent, the first rise since August 2008. Borrowing on auto loans increased 2.8 percent.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, viewed the gain as an encouraging sign households are becoming more confident about the economy and jobs. He also said banks are loosening some lending restrictions.

“The credit spigot is opening,’’ he said.

Even with the December gains, though, consumer borrowing is just 0.7 percent higher than the more than three-year low hit in September. It is 6.6 percent below the high set in July 2008.

Theresa Chen, an economist at Barclays Capital, said December’s borrowing was consistent with the strength seen in new car sales and retail sales.

Households began borrowing less and saving more as they started to feel the impact of the recession, which officially began in December 2007. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of total US economic activity.

Even if borrowing rises this year, many economists don’t expect Americans will borrow at the pace seen in the middle of the last decade. During that period, soaring home prices made households feel wealthier than they were, and that encouraged them to borrow and spend more.

Analysts had expected a rise in total borrowing in December, reflecting strength in auto loans, but not a rise in credit card debt. Both auto sales and overall retail sales had increases in December.