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The great consumer pullback
Is the sharp U.S. drop in borrowing a sign of personal virtue, or economic trouble ahead?
 

"Yeah, Americans!" said Scott Jagow in Marketplace. The amount of credit Americans had outstanding “plummeted” by a record $21.6 billion in July. It’s the sixth straight month consumers have cut back their borrowing and the 10th in a row that credit card balances have been reduced. Unfortunately, since consumer spending is two-thirds of U.S. GDP, it also means the economic turnaround could be even slower.

Make no mistake, this is "huge, and it’s good news," said Felix Salmon in Reuters. It means Americans are “getting their fiscal houses in order,” and not only are consumers “deleveraging,” they’re also “getting more sensible” about the sources of their borrowing—loans from credit unions are at an all-time high. Let’s hope these “new habits” last a long time.

Let’s not, said Douglas McIntyre in 24/7 Wall Street. “American consumer spending has run on credit since after WWII and that is not going to change overnight.” Unemployment is a big factor—consumers “anxious about their jobs or incomes” won’t borrow or charge as much—but unless they start spending before Christmas, look for big job cuts in retail. A few rounds of tax rebates might be better than the looming collapse in consumer spending.

A cheaper way to boost consumer confidence, and thus spending, would be through a new consumer watchdog, said Daniel Carpenter in The Boston Globe. Borrowing is also down because “consumers understandably lack trust in lenders, banks, and other purveyors of credit.” When they have clear, trustworthy credit options, they’ll start borrowing again.

 

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