Ahead of the Bell: Consumer Credit

AP News
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 6:20 AM

Consumers likely reduced their borrowing for an eighth straight month in September, as layoffs continue and credit remains tight. The declines in borrowing are expected to drag on the fledgling economic recovery.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect consumer credit fell by $10 billion at an annual rate in September after a decline of $12 billion in August. The Federal Reserve will release the report at 3 p.m. EST Friday.

Americans are borrowing less as they try to repair cracked nest eggs and replenish rainy day funds in the face of rising unemployment. Many are finding it hard to get credit as banks, hit by the worst financial crisis in decades, have tightened lending standards.

While economists have worried for years about the low rate of U.S. savings, the concern is that consumers could derail the fledgling recovery if they begin saving too great a share of their incomes. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity.

For August, the Fed reported that total consumer debt outstanding fell by $12 billion, a 5.8 percent annual rate. That followed a $19 billion decline in July, which had been the largest in dollar terms on records dating to 1943. It was a 9.1 percent decline, the largest such drop since a 16.3 percent fall in June 1975.

The Fed's report covers credit cards, store cards, auto and personal loans. It doesn't include mortgages or other loans secured by real estate.

The government reported last week that the overall economy grew at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the July-September quarter, the first growth after a record four straight declines and the strongest signal yet that the recession has ended.

Some worry that growth will sag in coming quarters because much of the third-quarter strength came from government support programs such as the Cash for Clunkers auto incentives.

But there have been some positive signs that consumer spending may not weaken as much as had been feared. The nation's automakers reported Tuesday that total sales of cars and light trucks rose 12 percent in October from a dismal September showing, a month when sales had plunged because the clunkers program had ended in August.

Also, the nation's big retail chains reported Wednesday that consumers spent a bit more last month with sales rising 2.1 percent compared with sales at the same stores in October 2008, according to a tally by International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs.

That was the best year-over-year since July 2008 and beat estimates of a 1 percent gain.

Among stores doing well were: Costco Wholesale Corp.; TJX Cos., which operates T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, and Gap Inc. Sales also improved at luxury retailers like Saks Inc. and Nordstrom Inc.