U.S. Bancorp's position as a consumer bank and merchant acquirer gives it a "great view" of how consumers are spending, saving and revolving on credit and debit cards, Richard Davis, chief executive of the Minneapolis-based corporation, noted during a conference call with investors yesterday. "In fact, I've often thought we can guess what the economy looks like a few weeks before all the numbers are brought together," Davis said. His prognosis? More of the same. "We are seeing continued stress in same-store sales, probably in the high single-digits, equal to and slightly worse than quarter four," Davis said. "In terms of buying patterns, we're seeing people continue to buy just as many purchases, but at lower price per purchase, and in many cases they're now using their credit card where they were using their debit card for some of the more-or-less discretionary activities." The bank has worked through and charged off a "very high concentration" of California-based commercial real-estate developer loans, which leaves the bank "extra room" to face recessionary pressures on credit card and other types of consumer loans, Davis said. Balances on U.S. Bank's credit cards are increasing, and the bank is decreasing the credit ceilings of some cardholders who "have performed poorly," he said. But the issuer will not lower the credit ceilings of cardholders who appear to be managing their cards well, even if they are revolving higher balances. "We think that's a covenant we don't want to break unless we see evidence of (poor) performance," Davis said. Bank executives convened the call to discuss the bank's plans to return the $6.6 billion it received from the Troubled Asset Relief Program by as early as this spring. Despite its relative health compared with some of its larger peers, U.S. Bancorp's board of directors declared a quarterly divided of 5 cents per common share, an 88.2% cut from nearly 43 cents per share paid in the previous quarter, to beef up its reserves against future losses.