Consumers borrowed less for a record eighth straight month in September amid rising unemployment and tight credit conditions. Economists worry the declines in borrowing will drag on the fledgling recovery.
The Federal Reserve said Friday that borrowing fell at an annual rate of $14.8 billion in September. That's the biggest decline since July and was larger than the $10 billion drop economists expected.
Americans are borrowing less as they try to repair cracked nest eggs and replenish rainy day funds in a dismal jobs market. Many are finding it hard to get credit as banks, hit by the worst financial crisis in decades, have tightened lending standards.
Borrowing by consumers for revolving credit, including credit cards, fell at an annual rate of 13.3 percent in September, the same as August. This category has declined for a record 12 straight months.
Borrowing for non-revolving loans, including auto loans, dropped at an annual rate of 3.7 percent in September after edging up 0.1 percent in August. The August gain reflected the surge in car sales as consumers rushed to take advantage of the government's Cash for Clunkers program.
The $14.8 billion overall decline in borrowing left total consumer credit at $2.46 trillion in September. The 7.2 percent annual rate of decline followed a 4.8 percent drop in August. The Fed's report doesn't include mortgages or other loans secured by real estate.
While economists have worried for years about the low rate of U.S. savings, the concern is that consumers could derail the recovery if they begin socking away too much of their incomes. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity.
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 partly because the nation's unemployment rate keeps rising. It climbed to 10.2 percent in October, the Labor Department reported Friday, the first time above 10 percent since 1983. Many economists believe the jobless rate will rise further in coming months.
But there some positive signs this week that consumer spending may not weaken as much as had been feared. The nation's automakers reported that total sales of cars and light trucks rose 12 percent in October from a dismal September, a month when sales plunged because the clunkers program ended in August.
Also, the nation's big retail chains reported that consumers spent a bit more last month. Sales rose 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 result since July 2008 and beat estimates of a 1 percent gain.
Among stores doing well were: Costco Wholesale; TJX, which operates T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, and Gap. Sales also improved at luxury retailers like Saks and Nordstrom.
The eight consecutive declines in consumer credit is the longest stretch on records dating to 1943. The previous record of seven straight drops from June through December 1991, also occurred when the country was struggling to emerge from a recession.