WASHINGTON – U.S. consumer borrowing increased more slowly in April, restrained by a sharp reduction in credit card debt.
The report suggests Americans may be resisting their credit cards after seeing employers pull back on hiring this spring.
The Federal Reserve said Thursday that consumers increased borrowing by $6.5 billion in April. That's just half the March gain.
The increase was driven by a $9.96 billion rise in a category that measures auto and student loans. That offset a $3.4 billion drop in credit card debt, the first decline since January.
Total borrowing rose to a seasonally adjusted $2.55 trillion. That was slightly below the all-time high of $2.58 trillion reached in July 2008, eight months after the Great Recession began.
Consumers had begun to use their credit cards more freely at the start of the year, a move that coincided with solid job gains over the winter. But hiring slowed sharply in April and May, which may have forced some to cut back on their plastic.
Employers added just 69,000 jobs in May, the fewest in a year, and just 77,000 jobs in April.
The economy added 252,000 jobs a month from December through February. Since then, job growth has slowed to a lackluster 96,000 a month.
April's borrowing increase was the smallest in six months. Economists said that could indicate that weaker job growth was forcing consumers to take on less debt.
Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics, said while consumers were reluctant to use their credit cards in April, they were still taking out more loans to finance car purchases and student tuition.
More borrowing is generally viewed as a healthy sign for the economy. It suggests consumers are gaining confidence and growing more comfortable taking on debt.
But another reason for the increased borrowing: More people are having trouble finding jobs and deciding to go back to school. Student loan debt has been rising sharply.
Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, grew in the first three months of the year at the fastest pace since late 2010.
Still, economists worry that consumers won't be able to maintain that level of spending, given that their pay has risen just 1.7 percent in the past 12 months. That's slower than the rate of inflation for that period.
And consumers are spending more while saving less. They saved just 3.6 percent of their after-tax income in the January-March quarter, down from 4.2 percent in the October-December quarter.
Households began borrowing less and saving more when the recession began and unemployment surged. While the expectation is that consumers are ready to resume borrowing, they are not expected to load up on debt the way they did during the housing boom of the last decade.
The Federal Reserve's borrowing report covers auto loans, student loans and credit cards. It excludes mortgages, home equity loans and other loans tied to real estate.