U.S. consumers are spending more and once again ramping up credit card balances, reversing a shift that happened during the crisis when consumers scaled back spending and substantially paid down credit card debt, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
After rising by $17 billion in both the second and third quarters, credit card use appears to be returning to pre-pandemic patterns, the researchers said. However, balances were still $123 billion lower than they were at the end of 2019.
"As pandemic relief efforts wind down, we are beginning to see the reversal of some of the credit card balance trends seen during the pandemic, namely reduced consumption and the paying down of balances," Donghoon Lee, a research officer at the New York Fed, said in a statement. "At the same time, as pandemic restrictions are lifted and consumption normalizes, credit card usage and balances are resuming their pre-pandemic trends, although from lower levels."
Credit cards typically follow a seasonal pattern where balances see "modest" increases in the second quarter and third quarter, followed by a more substantial increase in the fourth quarter, researchers said. Consumers then usually reduce those balances in the first quarter as they pay off their holiday spending, they wrote.
During the pandemic, however, households supported by direct cash payments and forbearance programs that paused payments on mortgages and student loans substantially reduced their credit card debt.
Now that forbearance programs are winding down, some of those consumers that paid down debt will be able to use some of their available credit to make ends meet while they search for jobs, New York Fed researchers said.
The report also found that total household debt increased by $286 billion in the third quarter to $15.24 trillion, driven mostly by a $230 billion increase in mortgage balances. Total debt balances are now $1.1 trillion above where they were at the end of 2019, the report showed.
Auto debt increased by $28 billion in the third quarter and student loan balances grew by $14 billion.
The findings showed that consumer debt delinquencies remain low, thanks in part to forbearance programs and other federal aid.
Credit card issuance for lower credit score borrowers is back to pre-pandemic levels after declining at the start of the pandemic. But the majority of new credit issued across all types of loans is being granted to high-quality borrowers, researchers said.
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