Consumers' rising revolving credit may mean the pullback in consumer lending is easing, but an analyst warns against drawing too many conclusions from the recent data.
"Data from a single month does not translate to a trend, and there are several other reasons to be cautious about over-interpreting the May revolving-credit data," Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics for Moody's Analytics, a division of Moody's Investors Service, said in an interview.
U.S. consumer revolving credit in May saw its biggest jump in nearly three years, interrupting a steady decline in consumer credit card balances that began in mid-2008, according to Federal Reserve data released Friday.
Revolving credit, 98% of which is consumer credit cards, rose to $793.1 billion, up 0.42% or 5.1% on an annualized basis, from $789.8 billion in April, the Fed reported in its monthly G.19 report.
The surge, along with recent indications that new credit card account originations are on the rise, could mean that a sustained pullback in consumer lending is easing.
One factor that could have contributed to the May uptick in credit card borrowing was a spike in gasoline prices that occurred the same month, Hoyt said.
"Because gas is largely purchased on plastic, and particularly with credit cards, the gas price spike may have contributed to higher credit spending that may be paid off before it turns into revolving debt," he said.
The Fed frequently finds reasons to revise its data, which was the case in March when the Fed's preliminary revolving-credit data showed an uptick that was later revised downward, eliminating an earlier reported increase.
"I'm not saying the May uptick will be revised away, but we would need a few months of data to see a trend" of increasing consumer revolving debt, Hoyt said.
There are other signs that credit card lending is on the way back, he noted.
"It's fairly clear that lending standards are beginning to ease, although it is not clear by how much," Hoyt said.
The Fed on May 2 announced that its quarterly survey of bank-lending practices among senior loan officers, conducted in early April, found that about 20% of banks reported easing standards for approving credit card applications. But only a "modest net fraction" of banks reported an increase in the number of consumer credit card applications over the previous three months, the Fed said.
Moody's expects consumer credit card borrowing to rebound eventually, Hoyt said.
"Consumers in the last couple of years have cut back dramatically on their borrowing; their debt burdens have fallen substantially, and the overall level of consumer debt has fallen to levels not seen since the mid-1990s," Hoyt said. "At some point, when the news about jobs improves, we forecast that consumer credit card supply and demand will improve. We are just not there yet."