Consumers' debt burden got easier to bear last year and in 1991, according to an index unveiled Tuesday by American Express Co.

The index, which incorporates eight measures of indebtedness, fell 18% from yearend 1990 to yearend 1992.

"The message is that the consumer financial situation is better than in 1990 but nowhere near what it's been years ago," said Alan Sinai, director of the company's Lehman Brothers unit and creator of the index.

The index gives most weight to the ratio of household debt payments to aftertax income.

Impact on Recovery

The high level of the index, which American Express has plotted through five economic cycles since 1968, could explain why the recovery is having a hard time getting off the ground.

After peaking at 273 in the fourth quarter of 1990, the index was down to 222.1 in the fourth quarter of 1992. That was up slightly from 219.8 in the third quarter and well above the level of about 170 in 1983.

The rise in the fourth-quarter index is further evidence that consumers may have little appetite for building up credit card balances, Mr. Sinai said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.