Consumer Credit Trends Looking Rather Bleak for a Strong Economy

May 7, 2019 by Jon C. Ogg

Source: belchonock / Getty Images
Economic release by the Federal Reserve, outside of the formal FOMC interest rate changes, may be boring on the surface. The flip-side to that is that the Fed’s economic reports are also very pertinent to what is happening in the broad economy.

Consumer credit increased by a 4.25% annual and seasonally adjusted rate during the first quarter. For the month of March, the slowest gain of the first quarter, that level rose by only 3.1%.

Revolving credit, generally considered to be credit cards, increased at an annual rate of 1.4% and nonrevolving credit (which includes student and auto loans) by 5.3% in the quarter. In March, the revolving credit was actually down by 2.5% (after a gain of 3.5% the prior month) and the nonrevolving credit matched the 5.0% gain seen the prior month.

Before parsing out the data further, it is important to look at the big picture here. March’s consumer credit as a whole was the slowest growth rate in 9 months and it was under-average or subpar growth for all four quarterly averages of 2018 and was slower than average of the prior five years.

The total 3.1% gain in consumer credit was almost $10.3 billion. February’s revised data showed a gain of more than $15.4 billion. The Wall Street Journal’s consensus economist estimate was calling for a gain of $15.8 billion for March in total.

With 2019 being another year of less than peak auto sales, the nonrevolving credit is likely to focus on student loans. This came to $2.9949 trillion — almost at the $3 trillion mark. The nonrevolving credit was at $2.95 trillion at the end of 2018, $2.8 trillion at the end of 2017, $2.67 trillion at the end of 2016 and $2.5 trillion at the end of 2015.

Seeing higher and higher consumer credit is a double-edged sword. The more borrowings are outstanding means the more burdened the consumer is with debt. Then again, if they aren’t buying on credit then they it is also assumed they are buying less in general. That rise in student debt is also one that just keeps growing and growing.

As a reminder, close to 70% of GDP is tied back to consumer spending — and it is hard to feel great about this trend considering that the Commerce Department’s first estimate for first quarter GDP was unexpectedly above 3% and considering that unemployment is at the lowest level in 50 years.

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