Consumers borrowed more in Feb., but card debt declined

Americans took out more loans to buy cars and attend school in February but used credit cards less frequently for a second straight month.

The Federal Reserve said Friday that consumer increased borrowing by $8.7 billion, sixth straight monthly increase.

The jump in borrowing was driven by an $11 billion increase in the category that mostly measures demand for auto and student loans. Borrowing on credit cards fell $2 billion after a $3 billion decline in January.

In February, total consumer borrowing rose to seasonally adjusted $2.52 trillion. That’s nearly at pre-recession levels and up from a post-recession low of $2.39 billion in September 2010. Borrowing had tumbled for more than two years during and immediately after the recession.

Consumer borrowing rose by $18.6 billion in January, following similar gains in December and November. The gains for those three months were the largest in a decade.

A rise in borrowing could suggest that consumers are feeling more confident about the economy. However, few are comfortable enough to step up credit card use. Consumers carried $799 billion in credit card debt in February — 15% less than in December 2007, first month of the Great Recession

The job market slowed in March after three of the best months of hiring since the recession. Employers added just 120,000 jobs last month — half the December-February pace. The unemployment rate fell from 8.3% to 8.2%, the lowest since January 2009, as more people left the workforce.

Many economists blamed seasonal factors for much of Friday’s disappointing jobs report from the Labor Department. Even with the March pullback, the economy has added an average of 212,000 jobs per month from January through March.

The increase in hiring has helped boost consumer spending, which jumped in February by the most in seven months.

But consumers are also borrowing more at a time when their wages have not kept pace with inflation. And they are paying more for gas — the average price per gallon nationally was $3.94 on Friday.

Households began borrowing less and saving more when the 2007-2009 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.

Derek Kravitz

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