Consumer credit card growth, which has been on the decline for about three years, could be showing signs of life again, according to data from Equifax Inc.

The Atlanta credit bureau said new bank-card account originations increased 35% during the 12 months that ended March 2011, and credit lines also expanded incrementally, although the company did not say by how much.

Equifax did not release the total number of new consumer credit card accounts issuers opened.

The increase in new card accounts is "a sign card lending competition is heating up," Equifax said in a July 1 press release.

"Despite concerns of the economy relapsing, several current metrics indicate the credit cycle is stabilizing — even growing somewhat as consumer payment behavior improves," said Michael Koukounas, Equifax senior vice president of client services.

Account originations may be on the rise, but observers remain skeptical that overall consumer credit card borrowing, which generates the largest share of card issuers' profits from revenues earned on interest rates, will increase anytime soon.

Total outstanding credit card debt has been declining for nearly three years, falling 18.9% in April, to $790 billion from $974 billion in August 2008, according to Federal Reserve data.

The last time the agency reported credit card debt at these levels was in 2004.

According to Patricia Sahm, managing director at Auriemma Consulting Group, consumers remain "extremely cautious" about adding to their overall debt burden as the economy remains lackluster. Consumers are spending less monthly on credit cards than they were before the recession struck and their outstanding credit card balances are lower, Auriemma data shows.

In a study Auriemma conducted among 1,026 consumers in March, cardholders said they spent an average of $515.57 per month on their credit cards, down 10.6% compared with an average of $576.22 cardholders said they spent monthly in a similar study conducted in March 2006.

"For a broad swath of consumers, the recession is not over," Sahm says.

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