Consumer debt rose in the last quarter by the most in more than six years, as Americans borrowed to buy homes and cars and to pay for education, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Household debt increased by 2.1 percent, or $241 billion, to $11.52 trillion, the biggest gain since the third quarter of 2007, the report showed. The level of debt in the last quarter was $180 billion higher than a year earlier.
“After a long period of deleveraging, households are borrowing again,” said Wilbert van der Klaauw, senior vice president and economist at the New York Fed.
Total indebtedness remains 9.1 percent below the peak of $12.68 trillion in the third quarter of 2008, the survey showed. Consumers have been cleaning up their balance sheets in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
“Signs that consumers are starting to releverage again and take on more debt is consistent with the idea that we’re turning a corner on the recovery,” said Timothy A. Duy, a professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene and a former U.S. Treasury economist.
Mortgage balances led the rise in consumer borrowing during the quarter, increasing by 1.9 percent, or $152 billion, to $8.05 trillion, the New York Fed showed. Foreclosures are at the lowest levels since the end of 2005. The rise in mortgage debt is “consistent with the improvement in the housing market we’ve seen,” Duy said. “Sooner or later, that was going to translate into higher levels of mortgage debt.”
Auto debt expanded $18 billion to $863 billion during the fourth quarter. Credit card borrowing climbed by $11 billion, to $683 billion.
Delinquency rates kept falling in the fourth quarter, with 7.1 percent of outstanding debt in some stage of delinquency, down from 7.4 percent in the third quarter. There were about 332,000 new bankruptcies during the fourth quarter, little changed from a year earlier.