Consumers used credit cards more in May

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans put more on their credit cards in May than in any single month since November 2007. But overall credit card use is still well below where it was just before the Great Recession began.

The Federal Reserve said Monday that consumer borrowing rose by $17.1 billion in May from April.

The increase drove total borrowing to a seasonally adjusted $2.57 trillion. That’s just below the all-time high of $2.58 trillion reached in July 2008, seven months after the recession began.

Borrowing has increased steadily over the past two years. But most of the gain has been driven by auto and student loans. The category that measures activity in those loans increased by $9.1 billion in May to a record $1.7 trillion

A measure of credit card debt jumped by $8 billion in May. But the overall level rose to just $870 billion, only 2.2 percent above the low point hit in April 2011. The category that includes credit card debt had totaled more than $1 trillion before and shortly after the recession began.

Consumers cut back sharply on their credit card borrowing during the recession and have only been posting modest gains over the past year.

And in May, Americans reached for their credit cards as the job market slumped and consumer confidence tumbled.

That could be a sign that more people are struggling to make payments and are taking on more high-interest debt.

The economy created an average of just 75,000 jobs per month from April through June. That’s down from an average of 225,000 jobs a month in the first quarter.

Consumer confidence fell in June for the fourth straight month, according to the Conference Board. The group’s index is closely watched because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

The overall economy grew at a lackluster pace of 1.9 percent in the January-March quarter and many economists believe it slowed even further in the April-June quarter. Unless job growth picks up, consumer spending could weaken and drag on economic growth.

Some economists believe the economy could get a boost in the second half from lower gas prices, which have been dropping sharply since April.

More borrowing is generally viewed as a healthy sign for the economy. It suggests consumers are gaining confidence and growing more comfortable taking on debt.

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