Like bank analysts on Wall Street, economists seem divided about the health of consumer borrowing and, consequently, the outlook for the economy next year.
In both camps, much attention has been focused on the atypical divergence of the nation's civilian unemployment rate and the chargeoff rate for banks' credit card loans.
The rates usually parallel each other. Beginning a year ago, however, the jobless rate began to fall while banks' chargeoffs rose to a post- recession high.
Analysts became concerned that a rise in credit problems - while the economy and the number of jobs were growing - might set the stage for record levels of consumer loan chargeoffs in the next recession.
Some observers breathed a sign of relief recently when the gap was narrowed somewhat by a third-quarter easing in chargeoffs, while the jobless rate in September rose a notch to 5.2%.
"I suspect we are going to see an improvement in credit quality," said economist James Glassman of Chase Securities. "Gains in the job market point toward better credit quality this winter."
Consumer incomes have grown at an impressive rate this year and should offset slowing job growth, he said. Meanwhile, financial assets of households have risen as the stock market has soared.
"Growing debt problems are no doubt a restraint for many households," he said. "But the high level of consumer confidence suggests that many more Americans are benefiting from the healthy income and wealth trends."
But others worry that an altered consumer culture might have been created in the past few years, built on heavy debt - with bankruptcy as the easy way out. This could be showing up in the diverging unemployment and chargeoff figures.
"The rise in delinquencies and bankruptcies has been abrupt and quite ahead of the economic cycle," said Gary L. Ciminero of Independent Economic Advisory, Providence, R.I.
Consumer credit seems to be the only dark cloud right now, but it might be enough to cause an economic slowdown next year, Mr. Ciminero said. Going against the consensus, he expects a "stingy" Christmas shopping season this year.
The economist said concern at the Federal Reserve seems apparent to him. In recent congressional testimony, Fed governor Lawrence Lindsey offered sobering insights from the central bank's much awaited survey of consumer finances.
Among the findings: the 1990s boom in consumer debt was centered among middle- and low-income earners. Households with incomes above $100,000 now owe one-fourth of consumer debt. Those below that level owe 75% - up from 62% in the 1980s.
And the survey, due in January, seems to undermine the oft-stated idea that "convenience use" of cards - credit extended to those who pay it off every month - explains most of the burgeoning card debt.
Mr. Lindsey said convenience card use "has not risen markedly in recent years, and still accounts only for roughly one dollar in seven of aggregate credit card debt."