Business

Americans cut back on credit cards for 3d month

The decline in credit card debt could affect consumer spending.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press/File
The decline in credit card debt could affect consumer spending.

WASHINGTON — Americans cut back on using their credit cards in August for a third straight month, a sign that consumers remain cautious about spending.

Consumers increased their borrowing $13.6 billion in August to a seasonally adjusted $3.04 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Monday. That’s a record and it followed a gain of $10.4 billion in July.

Once again, the increase in borrowing was driven entirely by auto and student loans. A measure of those loans rose $14.5 billion to $2.19 trillion.

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But credit card debt dropped $883 million to roughly $850 billion. The decline could hold back consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of economic growth.

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The report highlighted trends that have surfaced in the postrecession economy.

The measure of auto and student loans has risen 8.2 percent from a year ago and in every month but one since May 2010. But credit card debt is essentially where it was a year ago. And it is 16.9 percent below its peak hit in July 2008 — seven months after the Great Recession began.

Slow but steady job growth and small wage gains have made many Americans more reluctant to charge goods and services. Consumers may also be hesitant to take on high-interest debt because they are paying higher Social Security taxes this year.

At the same time, the weak economy is persuading more people to attend college. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York quarterly report on consumer credit shows student loan debt has been the biggest driver of borrowing since the recession officially ended in June 2009.

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The Fed has just started separating out student loans from auto loans. But the data are two months behind the report.

For June, the most recent month available, student loans totaled $1.18 billion while auto loans totaled $841 million. Those figures are not seasonally adjusted.

Analysts had thought that consumers would step up spending and help drive faster growth in the final three months of the year. But a partial government shutdown has now lasted a week and will leave hundreds of thousands of federal workers without paychecks. That is likely to further dampen consumer spending and hold back growth in the October-December quarter.