WASHINGTON -- Consumers are on a credit-card tear again with the friendly help of commercial banks, according to the most recent Federal Reserve data.
While the consumer debt figures look unsettling at first, analysts and Fed officials say buyers are simply showing a renewed appetite to spend, especially on autos, without getting too far into hock.
Installment debt in September jumped at an annual rate of 10.5%. with auto credit up 10.2%. Revolving credit. which is used for credit-card purchases at department stores and service stations, shot up 13.5%.
In fact, consumers have been taking on debt at a steadily rising pace since June, when outstanding credit rose 3.4%, followed by gains in both July and August of 8%. Credit-card debt has been hottest of all, rising 16.4% in July, 17.1% in August, and 13.5% in September.
Commercial banks have been supplying much of the credit.
From January to September, while consumer debt increased 3%, debt held by commercial banks rose 5.9%, and debt held by credit unions jumped 12.0%. Debt held by finance companies fell 2.9%, and other decreases were posted by savings institutions and retailers.
Auto credit increased $15.7 billion, or roughly two-thirds of all additional debt taken on by consumers during the first nine months of the year. But while total auto credit expanded 6.1%, commercial banks put 10.1% more on their books. Revolving credit rose 4.6% overall, but 5.4% at banks.
Tony Riley, director of research for Gary Shilling & Co. in Springfield, N.J., says the recent surge in consumer debt reflects a buying binge that cannot be sustained because income growth is much more modest. Consumers are simply drawing down their savings, he says.
But Fed officials point out that by other measures, consumers do not appear to be piling on new debt recklessly. Debt service payments have remained at a relatively stable 16.2% share of disposable personal income over the last year.
Moreover, Fed officials are aware that credit-card companies are aggressively marketing the use of plastic to outlets like gas stations and grocery stores.
This points to consumers making more routine purchases with credit cards, which can show up as increases in reported outstanding debt, even if the debt is paid off promptly.
Dana Johnson. head of market analysis for First National Bank of Chicago, says banks have been eager to step up consumer lending, where the risks appear small after the bath banks took from large commercial customers.
Lyle Gramley, consulting economist to the Mortgage Bankers Association, says that consumer debt is still down considerably from late 1989, when the ratio of debt payments to disposable income hit a peak of 18.3%. The reduction to the current ratio of 16.2% has put about $100 billion in consumer pockets for spending, he estimates.
Consumers are also picking up cash from mortgage refinancing and from replacing long-term credit-card debt with less costly home equity loans.