Rising consumer debt is good for the economy but not for consumers

Consumer borrowing is climbing at the fastest pace in more than five years, but with jobs still uncertain, they may be digging themselves into a familiar fiscal hole.

Teresa Martin was laid off in October from her job as office manager for a packaging company. The Corona resident is now struggling to pay her bills.

Martin, 57, isn't carrying any credit card balances at the moment, but she said she may have to start running up debt on plastic in the coming days if she wants to keep a roof over her head.

"It's scary," she told me. "But I'm not sure what else I can do."

As we stagger into a new year, consumer debt is climbing at the fastest pace in more than five years.

IOUs held by U.S. households rose 1.1% in the third quarter to $11.3 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That's the biggest jump since the first three months of 2008.

Meanwhile, student debt continues to pile up as tuition and other higher-education costs become increasingly out of reach for many families.

Outstanding student-loan balances climbed $33 billion to $1.03 trillion in the third quarter, and a record 12% of loans were delinquent 90 days or more, the New York Fed said.

There are two forces at work. Some people, like Martin, are still taking licks from an uncertain economy. They're going deeper into debt just to survive.

At the same time, many people with a more secure financial footing have rediscovered the pleasures of buying homes and cars and college educations — even though they may not have the money.

In both cases, the result is the same: Consumers are borrowing again.

"The figures are scary because they show people are taking on more debt at a time when jobs are still uncertain," said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for the advocacy group Consumer Action.

"It's dismal to contemplate a life of frugality, and many people are suffering from frugality fatigue," she said. "Some consumers feel like they should spend it while they have it."

Donghoon Lee, senior research economist at the New York Fed, said it looked as if consumers had reached "a turning point" in their attitude toward debt.

After slashing overall debt from the record $12.7 trillion in 2008, he said, Americans appear to have decided that they had tightened their belts enough. In economist-speak, that means we're done with "deleveraging."

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Consumer spending accounts for roughly two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. So if people are buying stuff — even with borrowed bucks — the economy is growing.

The question is whether Americans have become better money managers as a result of the recession and subsequent doldrums. Or are we just going to dig ourselves back into a familiar fiscal hole?

Martin, for one, said she doesn't want to take on more debt. "I'm just not sure what else to do," she said.

Lenders, for their part, think it's swell that borrowing is on the rise.

"Consumers have learned the hard lessons of the recession and strive to keep debt at manageable levels," said Keith Leggett, senior economist with the American Bankers Assn. "Consumer debt is still lower than before the recession, and consumer delinquencies remain significantly below their 15-year average."

People are clearly feeling comfortable with big-ticket splurges. Auto-loan balances rose $31 billion in the third quarter to $845 billion — the 10th straight quarterly increase. New auto loan originations increased to $97 billion, the highest since the third quarter of 2007.

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