Americans took on more debt in May and used their credit cards more for only the second time in nearly three years. Consumers stepped up their borrowing just as the economy began to slump and hiring slowed.
The Federal Reserve said Friday that consumer borrowing rose $5.1 billion in May, the eighth straight monthly increase. It followed a revised gain of $5.7 billion in April. Borrowing in the category that covers credit cards increased, as did borrowing in the category for auto and student loans.
Borrowing is a sign of confidence in the economy. Consumers tend to take on more debt when they feel wealthier. That boosts consumer spending. Ultimately, it gives businesses more faith to expand and hire. But an increase in credit card debt can also be a sign of people falling on harder times.
The economy added just 18,000 jobs in June, the fewest in nine months, the Labor Department said Friday. It was the second straight month of feeble job growth. The unemployment rate rose to 9.2 percent, the highest rate of the year.
Economists have said that temporary factors, in part, have forced some employers to scale back hiring plans. High gas prices have cut into consumer spending, which fuels 70 percent of economic activity. And supply-chain disruptions stemming from the Japan crisis have slowed U.S. manufacturing production.
Economists don’t expect consumers to load up on debt the way they did during the housing boom. During that period, Americans felt wealthier and more willing to take on increased debt because of the soaring value of their homes.
The Federal Reserve’s borrowing report includes auto loans, student loans and credit cards. But it excludes mortgages and loans tied to real estate.