WASHINGTON - James August isn't the most famous person at the Federal Reserve Board. The number-cruncher toils away on the fourth floor of the central bank's main building, far removed from the center stage the Fed's governors and leading researchers regularly grab.
But once a month the spotlight is reserved for Mr. August and his consumer installment credit data.
Mr. August, who's been preparing the data for 10 years, surveys 400 commercial banks and 100 finance companies to discover whether consumers are demanding more or less credit and to see how many people are defaulting on their existing debt.
"Consumer credit is very important, especially for banks," said Jim Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "A lot of what they do is consumer credit."
That's why some recent trends in the consumer installment credit data are worrisome, he said. The numbers are showing that consumers are starting to pull back on credit, and that more people are defaulting on their loans.
"It is a light that says how much new consumer credit we are willing to take on," Mr. Chessen said of the data. "That means banks are starting to reassess how much consumer credit they are willing to add to their portfolios. With the economy slowing, they will be less likely to push out new credit."
The Fed picks the banks and finance companies randomly, though it does ensure that the largest companies are always represented. The numbers are revised twice, first after a month passes and then after all the banks file their quarterly call reports.
"This is the standard thing you do when you are working with estimates," he said. "You find out how close you were, and then you revise your numbers."
Bankers and economists rely on the data, which the various reserve banks collect, for a variety of economic and loan-pricing decisions.
"They really are important pieces of information," said Kelly Matthews, senior vice president and chief economist at First Security Corp., Salt Lake City. "They are leading indicators or perspective visions as to future consumer confidence, growth potential, and all those things that are important as bankers want to grow their portfolios."
"It is an indication of consumer spending, and consumer spending is driving our economy," said William M. Cunningham, an economist and bank analyst. "It is still a pretty good measure, as far as measures go. And it's been around for a while, so you have a good historical perspective."
Mr. August's credit demand numbers had been on a two-year moon shot, increasing steadily since 1992. And, just as important, defaults had dropped from a high of 3% to 1.75%.
Now, however, that's starting to change.
"There has been a little bit of an indication that delinquencies are beginning to edge up," Mr. Matthews said. "They certainly aren't out of line, and they are still historically low."
If the trend continues, bankers may stop expanding credit lines, he said.
"Right now, most banks are in a mode of seeking loans," Mr. Matthews said. "But they just might take a second look at it to weed out those that pose an inordinate amount of risk."
Mr. August's numbers have a second purpose that some consider even more important. The consumer installment credit data are combined with other numbers to learn how much disposable income consumers have.
Those numbers show that consumer debt loads have risen significantly, said Nicholas Perna, the chief economist for Shawmut National Corp.
"That has been on the rise, and even further than most people think because it doesn't take into account auto leasing," Mr. Perna said.
Bankers react differently to the swings in consumer installment credit, Mr. Cunningham said.
If consumer credit is rising, bankers often try to increase their market share by adjusting prices and offering specials. But the fight for new business heats up even more when demand starts falling. Then, bankers either must keep rates low and accept reduced profits or sacrifice market share to cover losses with higher rates.
"I've seen people argue all sides of the issue," he said.