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Consumers Borrow Less at Record-Setting Pace


Feds surprised by steep decline.

Americans borrowed less for a 10th consecutive month in November with total credit and borrowing on credit cards falling by the largest amounts on records going back nearly seven decades.

The dramatic declines raised new worries about whether consumers will cut back further on spending, making it harder for the economy to mount a sustained rebound.

The Federal Reserve said Friday that total borrowing dropped by $17.5 billion in November, a much bigger decline than the $5 billion decrease economists had expected.

Americans are borrowing less for a number of reasons. They remain fearful about their job prospects and they are also trying to replenish depleted investments. The government reported Friday that employers cut an additional 85,000 jobs in December, bringing total job losses to more than 8 million since the recession began in December 2007.

Even consumers who would like to increase their borrowing are finding it hard to get credit at banks. Many banks, hit by the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, have tightened lending standards. (This includes Citi (C), Chase (JPM), and Bank of America (BAC) ). While economists have worried for years about the low rate of US savings, the concern now is that consumers could derail the recovery if they start saving too much of their incomes. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity.

November's $17.5 billion drop in total credit was the biggest amount in dollar terms since records began in 1943. That represents an 8.5 percent fall from the October borrowing level. That was the biggest percentage drop since total credit declined 9 percent in May 1980.

The borrowing category that includes credit cards fell by $13.7 billion, an all-time record decline in dollar terms. The drop was 18.5 percent from November, the biggest decline in percentage terms since a 29.6 percent plunge in December 1974.

The Fed's credit report excludes home loans and home equity mortgages, only covering borrowing that is not secured by real estate.

The drop in overall credit for 10 straight months was a record in terms of consecutive declines, surpassing the old mark of seven straight declines set in 1943 and again in 1991.

Borrowing in the category that includes credit cards has fallen for 14 straight months, also a record.

With the string of declines, overall consumer borrowing by the Fed measure has fallen to $2.46 trillion.
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