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US consumer debt rises to 6-year high

Borrowing is up for homes, school

NEW YORK — Consumer debt rose last quarter by the most in more than six years as Americans borrowed to buy homes and cars and to pay for education, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Household debt increased 2.1 percent, or $241 billion, to $11.52 trillion, the biggest gain since the third quarter of 2007. The level of debt last quarter was $180 billion higher than a year earlier.

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‘‘After a long period of deleveraging, households are borrowing again,’’ Wilbert van der Klaauw, economist at the New York Fed, said in a statement.

Total indebtedness remains 9.1 percent below the peak of $12.68 trillion in the third quarter of 2008, the survey showed. Consumers have been cleaning up their balance sheets in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

‘‘Signs that consumers are starting to releverage again and take on more debt is consistent with the idea that we’re turning a corner on the recovery,’’ said Tim Duy, a professor at the University of Oregon and a former US Treasury economist.

Consumer confidence improved for the first time in five weeks as Americans grew more upbeat about the outlook for the economy. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index increased to minus-30.7 in the week ended Feb. 9, from minus 33.1 in the prior period.

Household spending that rose at the fastest pace in three years helped the economy grow at a 3.2 percent rate in the fourth quarter, Commerce Department data showed Jan. 30.

Mortgage balances led the rise in consumer borrowing during the quarter, increasing 1.9 percent, or $152 billion, to $8.05 trillion, the New York Fed said. Foreclosures are at the lowest since the end of 2005.

The rise in mortgage debt is ‘‘consistent with the improvement in the housing market we’ve seen,’’ Duy said. ‘‘Sooner or later, that was going to translate into higher levels of mortgage debt.’’

The S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices in 20 US cities rose in the 12 months through November by the most in almost eight years, a Jan. 28 report showed.

Yields on 10-year Treasuries fell about five basis points to 2.7 percent, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader data.

A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

Auto debt expanded by $18 billion to $863 billion during the fourth quarter.

Credit-card borrowing climbed $11 billion to $683 billion.

Delinquency rates continued to drop in the fourth quarter, with 7.1 percent of outstanding debt in some stage of delinquency, down from 7.4 percent in the third quarter.

There were about 332,000 new bankruptcies during the fourth quarter, little changed from a year earlier.

From the fourth quarter of 2012 to the end of last year, student loan debt swelled the most in dollar terms, increasing $114 billion to $1.08 trillion. In the last three months of 2013, education borrowing rose by about $53 billion.

The New York Fed’s report is based on data compiled by the bank’s Consumer Credit Panel, a nationally representative random sample from Equifax Inc. credit-report data.

The Fed’s quarterly financial accounts report — previously known as the flow of funds survey — includes household debt, along with debt measures for nonfinancial businesses, state and local governments, and the federal government.

Household wealth in the United States increased from July through September, with net worth for households and nonprofit groups rising by $1.92 trillion in the third quarter to $77.3 trillion, the Fed said Dec. 9 in its financial accounts report. Consumer debt increased at a 3 percent annual rate that quarter, that Fed report showed.

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