US consumer borrowing increased $20.5 billion in March, biggest gain in 11 months


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FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2014 file photo, a woman pays for merchandise at a Kohl's department store in Sherwood, Ark. The Federal Reserve releases consumer credit data for March 2015 on Thursday, May 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

WASHINGTON — Consumers increased their borrowing in March by the largest amount in nearly a year as borrowing on credit cards rebounded following two months of declines.

Consumer borrowing expanded by $20.5 billion in March to a fresh record of $3.36 trillion, the Federal Reserve reported Thursday. It was the largest increase since April 2014.

Borrowing in the category that covers credit cards shot up $4.4 billion to $889.4 billion in March after having fallen in both January and February. It was the biggest gain for consumer credit since last July.

Borrowing in the category that covers auto and student loans rose $16.2 billion to $2.47 trillion.

The jump in borrowing on credit cards could be evidence that consumers are beginning to feel more confident about taking on debt to finance retail purchases, a development that should bolster consumer demand in the months ahead. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

Analysts at the Economic Advisory Service noted in a research note that March marked a second strong month of consumer credit gains. But even with rising credit card debt, the category is still 8.6 percent below the all-time high it hit in July 2008.

Consumer spending growth slowed sharply in the January-March quarter, a big factor in the slowdown in overall growth. The economy eked out a tiny 0.2 percent increase in gross domestic product in the first quarter.

Economists believe GDP growth will rebound to 2 percent to 2.5 percent in the current April-June period and will climb to an even better 3 percent rate in the second half of the year. But those forecasts are heavily dependent on a solid rebound in consumer spending.

Consumer borrowing in the Fed's monthly report is up 6.9 percent from a year ago, a gain heavily influenced by the rise in the auto and student loan category. Growth in the category that covers credit cards has also accelerated in the past year.

The Fed's monthly credit report does not cover mortgages or other loans backed by real estate such as home equity loans.

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