Credit card issuers that cut consumers' credit lines or closed their accounts during the recession are opening credit lines again, but consumers do not appear very interested.
Total U.S. revolving credit, most of which is card debt, declined by $3.4 billion during April to $862.3 billion, the Federal Reserve Board reported June 7. The 0.39% decrease erased a $3.7 billion surge in debt during March, according to the Fed's monthly G.19 report.
Economists caution against reading too much in to the Fed's monthly reports, which the agency often revises in subsequent months with further analysis.
But new consumer data from Auriemma Consulting Group appear to parallel the Fed's data on revolving-credit trends.
In an online survey Auriemma conducted in April involving 500 U.S. credit card accountholders, the average reported balance on the card respondents used most frequently slipped 13.8%, to $1,581 from $1,835 at the end of March.
The one-month decline was one of the sharpest Auriemma has tracked in recent quarters, the firm said.
For example, the average balance on cardholders' most frequently used card declined only 6.5% between the first and second quarters of 2011, to $1,826 from $1,952. Consumers typically carry higher-than-average card balances during the first quarter following holiday spending surges.
"This suggests continued consumer focus on deleveraging," Auriemma wrote in its monthly Cardbeat report, adding that consumers are reducing their debts at a greater rate than they were a year earlier.
Moreover, the number of consumers in Auriemma's study in April that said they only "sometimes" revolve a credit card balance rose to its highest level in nearly two years.
For the first time in recent months, more consumers said they only "sometimes" revolve a balance than said they "frequently" or "never" do, Auriemma noted. Some 37% said they only sometimes revolve a balance, compared with 36% who said they never do and 26% who said they sometimes do.
"We expect this trend to continue as many consumers knowingly revolve for specific purposes, but many also have a specific repayment duration for those balances in mind," Auriemma said in its report.
Meanwhile, lenders are opening up more credit lines to subprime borrowers, although it has not yet translated into heavier overall borrowing, according to TransUnion (see story).
Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting at Chicago-based TransUnion, tells PaymentsSource that, despite consumers' overall reluctance to take on debt, the fact that lenders are opening up credit lines again is a positive sign.
"In the face of a slow and fitful recovery, consumers are maintaining good discipline on borrowing," he says.
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