Driven by demand for auto and student loans, consumer borrowing rose by a more than expected $17.8 billion in January, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday.
This marks the fifth consecutive increase in consumer borrowing. The gains during this period were the largest in a decade and propelled consumer borrowing to a seasonably adjusted $2.5 trillion, which is only $70 billion below the July 2008 peak of $2.582 trillion,
The category that measures demand for auto and student loads increased by nearly $21 billion, the largest increase in this category in more than a year. Borrowing on credits cards fell $2.9 billion in January after four months of gains.
Growth in consumer credit can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it might indicate growing confidence in the economy as consumers responsibly borrow to make major purchases. The Conference Board reported last week that consumer confidence rose in February to the highest level in a year. On the down side, too much debt could inhibit consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.
A February survey of investors conducted by Millionaire Corner found that reduction of personal debt was the most significant concern for 20 percent of those under 40 as well as for those between 41-50.
An steadily improving job market may be emboldening households to take on more debt. First time claims for unemployment have been at near four-year lows in recent weeks. Unemployment edged down to 8.3 percent in January, while the economy added 243,000 jobs. Economists are forecasting an increase of 210,000 new jobs in February. The government report will be released on Friday.