Americans relied less on borrowed money in April than they did in March a
sign that the pullback on debt-fueled spending continued into the spring.
New data from the Federal Reserve shows that outstanding consumer
credit which includes credit cards, auto loans and tuition financing, but
not mortgages, fell by $15.7 billion to $2.52 trillion, an annualized drop of
7.4%. That marks the second-largest dollar drop on record, following March’s
$16.6 billion decline.
While more-cautious lending practices are certainly contributing
to decreased borrowing, the bigger driver is that Americans are still
feeling the effects of recession the unemployment rate hit 9.4% in May and
choosing to tap credit lines less. Commerce Department figures from earlier
this week show that people are now saving 5.7% of their disposable income,
the highest rate in 14 years. In an April survey of senior bank-loan
officers, the Fed found that demand for loans from households was down in
almost every category.
In the most recent Fed data, use of revolving credit, like
credit cards, was down 11% from the month before. Non-revolving
credit including loans for cars, boats, mobile homes, education and
vacations was off by 5.3%. The amount of outstanding consumer credit is now
about what is was in 2007.
Whether or not the downward trend continues, though, is far from
a sure thing. With scattered signs of economic rebound, consumers might soon
feel confident enough to start spending more on everything from summer
fashions to new cars and doing it with borrowed money. On June 4, an
executive with MasterCard suggested that people were already starting to
inch in that direction. Speaking at an investor conference, he said that
thus-far unreleased results of the company’s monthly spending survey
indicate that while people were still spending less, the rate of decline has
slowed. MasterCard runs the systems that process credit- and debit-card
transactions and can therefore provide a more timely read on the economy
than official government statistics.
A June 4 report from Fitch Ratings provides another glimmer of
stability. The company’s measure of credit-card late payments fell in May,
after four straight months of record highs. The rate, though, was still 40%
higher than a year before, and credit-card charge-offs which happen when a
lender gives up on ever being repaid did continue to rise. Fitch analysts
have anticipated that eventually one out of every ten dollars in credit-card
debt will be written off this way, although the drop in delinquencies may
indicate that people are getting a handle on their finances more quickly
Yet none of that changes the long-term reality of how indebted
Americans are a structural issue that will require more than a couple of
months to return to historic normalcy. A recent research note by economists
at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco points out that the ratio of
household debt to personal disposable income a measure of how “leveraged”
individuals are has barely budged from its 2007 high of 133%. In 1960, that
ratio was 55% in 1960 and in the mid-1980s, 65%.
Are Americans borrowing less Sure. But they might have a lot more pullback
left in them yet.See TIME’s pictures of the week