The number of open retail credit card accounts in the U.S. has reached heights not seen since the end of 2009.
However, a credit-card jump may simply be an offshoot of consumers shifting borrowing habits to different forms of loans as the economic recovery continues to move at a snail's pace.
Americans have now opened more than 175 million retail credit card accounts through July of 2012, the highest total since December of 2009, Equifax Inc. states in its August National Consumer Credit Trends Report.
The latest Equifax data also shows that lending to subprime borrowers in May of 2012 increased by nearly 14% over its recession low in 2010, the Atlanta, Ga.-based consumer and commercial data provider says.
Credit card networks and issuers may benefit from a shift in consumer borrowing habits, but the numbers may not reflect the economy is picking up steam, says Gil Luria, analyst with Los Angeles-based Wedbush Securities.
"Consumers, as an aggregate, are getting away from home loans, and fewer people own homes, so other forms of consumer credit are growing," Luria says.
Credit card loans and student loans will grow as consumers move away from the traditional forms of debt that come from home mortgages, Luria says.
Relaxed lending standards have resulted in 13.8 million new retail card accounts through May of 2012, or a 10% increase over the January to May 2011 totals, Equifax reports.
Equifax considers the trend as a signal of a growing economy, but also states that consumers are far more cautious now.
"The economic recovery is increasing both demand for new credit cards and the supply of credit," Equifax chief economist Amy Crews Cutts said in a company press release.
While consumers seek new credit card accounts, they are not increasing use of newly available credit as quickly as in the past, Cutts added.
"Utilization rates of card limits continue to fall and, additionally, we are seeing increasing payment ratios at the same time," she said.
In addition, Equifax reports delinquency rates among retail cards last month saw a nearly 15% decrease from the same time a year ago.
The lessons learned from the prolonged recession "are still fresh in everyone's minds," Luria says.
"If the credit card is going to be the primary source of consumer borrowing, and the go-to place for spending and loans, then the consumer is going to be far more careful in how he handles that," Luria adds.
Equifax also reports that new retail credit card limits reached $25.1 billion from January to May 2012, an increase of more than 16% from the same time a year ago. Retail card balances rose $2.6 billion from the same time a year ago, reaching $51.5 billion last month, the report states.
Write-off dollar rates have declined to 8% for the first time since December of 2007, a 56-month low. Write-off dollar rates surpassed 14% during the recession, the report adds.
The August report also indicated consumers are paying back card debt more consistently than paying off student loans.