Saturday, January 9, 2010

Consumer Credit in U.S. Drops Record $17.5 Billion

Vincent Del Giudice
Consumer credit in the U.S. dropped a record $17.5 billion in November as unemployment close to a 26- year high discouraged borrowing and banks limited access to loans.

A labor market that’s shed 7.2 million jobs since the recession started in December 2007 is restraining consumer spending that accounts for about 70 percent of the economy. Fed policy makers have said tighter bank lending standards and reductions in credit lines are hampering the recovery.

“Double-digit unemployment is eroding consumer confidence and the uncertainty is prompting consumers to pay down their credit card debts,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York. “We have not seen such a wholesale reduction in consumer credit since the last time we had double-digit unemployment rate following the early ‘80s recessions.”

The series of 10 straight declines in consumer credit was the longest since record-keeping began in 1943.

Treasury two-year notes gained the most in three weeks after the Labor Department said today that companies reduced payrolls in December by 85,000 workers after adding 4,000 a month earlier. The unemployment rate held at 10 percent.

Stocks, Yields

Two-year Treasury yields dropped below 1 percent, to 0.97 percent at 4:52 p.m. in New York, from 1.02 percent late yesterday.

Revolving debt, such as credit cards, plunged by a record $13.7 billion in November, the Fed’s statistics showed. Non- revolving debt, including loans for autos and mobile homes, declined by $3.8 billion. The Fed’s report doesn’t cover borrowing secured by real estate.

Auto sales in the U.S. climbed in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 10.92 million, up from 10.45 million in October. The pace increased to 11.23 million in December, the strongest since 14.09 million in August, when Americans took advantage of government incentives.

Consumer Spending

Consumer spending increased in November for the sixth time in seven months as Americans took advantage of discounts during the holidays, Commerce Department figures showed Dec. 23. Faster growth in sales and improvement in households’ balance sheets depends on job creation.

“U.S. consumer credit quality remains under considerable stress due to persistently weak labor market conditions,” said Michael Dean, managing director at Fitch Ratings. A report from Fitch on Jan. 5 showed delinquent balances on credit cards at a record level.

At American Express Co., defaults and delinquencies fell to 2009 lows. AmEx was the only one of the “Big 6” credit-card issuers to post November declines in write-offs and delinquencies, the New York-based lender said in a Dec. 15 regulatory filing.

Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian T. Moynihan has said the largest U.S. lender needs to reduce the loss rate on credit cards, which ranked highest among the nation’s six biggest card companies in November. Bank of America’s card defaults are “still very high,” Moynihan, 50, said.

‘Significant Bubble’

“As an industry, we over-lent and customers over-borrowed, and that led to a fairly significant bubble,” Moynihan said Jan. 4 in an interview on Bloomberg Television in Raleigh, North Carolina. “We have to help lead the economic recovery. At the same time, we have to be responsible lenders.”

Banks have responded by tightening credit standards, for consumers and companies. Fed Governor Elizabeth Duke said in a Jan. 4 speech that total loans on banks’ books fell at an annual rate of more than 11 percent in the third quarter. While banks are reducing lines of credit and tightening lending standards, small businesses are also losing their business relationships with banks as firms fail, merge or reduce their loan portfolios, Duke said.

Broken Relationships

“When existing lending relationships are broken, time may be required for other banks to establish and build such relationships, allowing lending to resume,” Duke said.

Britt Beemer, chairman of consumer polling firm America’s Research Group, said in a Dec. 21 interview that if lenders weren’t cutting customer spending limits and rejecting more credit-card applications, holiday sales would have been stronger.

December same-store sales climbed 3 percent, the biggest gain since April 2008, Retail Metrics Inc. said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

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