US consumer borrowing up a moderate $12 billion in January

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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. consumer borrowing slowed in January as borrowing on credit cards declined following a huge surge in December.

The Federal Reserve said Friday that consumer credit rose by $12 billion following a $20.3 billion surge in December. The December number reflected the biggest increase in borrowing on credit cards in two decades.

However, in January, credit card use fell by $3.04 billion following the revised gain of $11 billion in December.

The category that includes auto loans and student loans increased $15.1 billion in January. That was up from a $9.2 billion gain in December and was the strongest increase since August.

Consumer borrowing is closely followed for clues it can give about the willingness of households to go into debt to support their spending, which accounts for 70% of economic activity.

The current economic expansion, now in a record 11th year, has been powered by consumer spending, which has helped to offset weakness in such areas as business investment and trade.

But there are worries that the rapidly spreading coronavirus could disrupt consumer activity enough to harm the economy.

“We expect a fairly stable pace of credit growth in 2020, but the risk is to the downside if consumers — and lenders — pull back as the coronavirus takes a toll on confidence and growth,” analysts at Oxford Economics said in note to clients.

However, many analysts believe the adverse effects are likely to be short-lived. They note that the economy had good momentum going into last week when the spread of the virus in China and beyond caused the U.S. stock market to suffer its worst week of losses since the 2008 financial crisis.

The 3.4% gain in overall credit pushed the total to a new record of $4.2 trillion. The Fed’s monthly consumer credit report does not cover home mortgages or any other loans secured by real estate such as home equity loans.

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