US Credit Card Debt Rises 150% in Third Quarter (V, MA, AXP, COF)

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Americans have started using their credit cards again — and in a big way. Credit card debt jumped 154% in the third quarter of 2011 compared with the same period a year ago, according to the latest report from Card issuers like Visa Inc. (NYSE: V), Mastercard Inc. (NYSE: MA), American Express Corp. (NYSE: AXP), and Capital One Financial Corp. (NYSE: COF) must be smiling today.

According to the CardHub report, combined debt and charge-offs rose $16.82 billion in the quarter. The US Federal Reserve’s consumer credit report, which was issued yesterday, noted a drop in revolving credit outstanding of -2%. The Fed’s numbers, however, do not include charge-offs of $10.94 billion that are included in the CardHub numbers.

The Federal Reserve’s report shows that non-revolving debt, such as student loans and auto loans, increased by $7.3 billion. Total outstanding consumer debt according to the Fed is $2.457 trillion in October.

CardHub reports that the charge-off rate for credit card debt rose slightly, from 5.58% in the second quarter of 2011 to 5.63% in the third quarter.

There are two troubling aspects to the third quarter report according to CardHub:

While it is common for consumers to end the first quarter of each year with a significant net decrease in credit card debt and subsequently wipe out this reduction throughout the rest of the year, the speed at which consumers are garnering new debt in 2011 is unprecedented.  More specifically, this is the first time in the last two years that a Q1 pay down has been completely eradicated by the end of Q3.

Additionally, in both 2009 and 2010, consumers added more new debt in Q4 than in Q2 and Q3 combined.  If this is any indication for what Q4 2011 has in store, consumers are certainly headed down a dangerous path.  As a result, Card Hub revised upward the year-end credit card debt projection it made earlier this year from $54 billion to $64 billion.

Shopper surveys indicate that consumers plan to spend more this holiday season than they did last year. While that is good news for retailers and for the economy in general, it could be setting up a new round of consumers over-extending themselves, but this time without housing price increases to soak up the new debt.

If consumers’ confidence is rising, that’s a good thing, but if the rise is based on increases in home values and the belief that their jobs are secure, that could be a pretty shaky foundation upon which to increase debt given the overall weakness in both the US and global economies.