The Federal Reserve reported Tuesday that consumers remained cautious with credit card spending in November but took on more debt to attend school and purchase cars. Total consumer borrowing for the month increased by $16 billion from October to a seasonally adjusted record of $2.77 trillion.
Non-revolving debt that covers autos and student loans increased $15.2 billion in November and is 22.8 percent higher than in July 2008. Many Americans who have lost jobs have gone back to school to get training for new careers. Revolving debt, 98% of which measures credit card debt, rose just $817 million in November. The borrowing report excludes mortgages, home equity loans and other loans tied to real estate.
The sharp difference in the borrowing gains points to a broader trend that began during the Great Recession. Four years ago, Americans carried $1.03 trillion in credit card debt, an all-time high. In November, that figure was 16.5 percent lower. Student loan debt at the same time has increased dramatically. The latest increase also reflected more gains in auto sales, which grew 13.4 percent in 2012 to top 14 million units for the first time in five years. The need to replace vehicles destroyed by Superstorm Sandy also may have contributed to the gain.
Many analysts expect the trends in borrowing to stay the same this year. They predict small increases in credit card debt and stronger gains in auto and student loans.
The economy has been showing signs of improvement. Consumers boosted their spending in November, helped by lower gas prices and solid job growth that carried over into December. Employers added 155,000 jobs in December and 161,000 in November.
Steady hiring likely has encouraged consumers to keep borrowing and spending, despite negotiations and fears about resolving the fiscal cliff. Some analysts expect borrowing and spending may have slowed in December as those budget talks in Washington intensified. Congress and the White House didn't reach a deal to avert sharp tax increases until Jan. 1 - and delayed additional decisions about spending cuts for another two months.
Consumer confidence fell in both November and December, which may slow spending in December. Consumer spending drives roughly 70 percent of economic activity.