October 9, 2007 / 2:09 PM / 12 years ago

Americans charge it as Bank of Subprime closes: James Saft

LONDON (Reuters) - The automated teller for home loans is empty and Americans are relying increasingly on credit cards to pay their living costs, indicating tough hurdles ahead for U.S. consumer spending and markets.

A credit card is seen in a publicity photo. The automated teller for home loans is empty and Americans are relying increasingly on credit cards to pay their living costs, indicating tough hurdles ahead for U.S. consumer spending and markets. REUTERS/Vismedia

Federal Reserve data released on Friday showed U.S. consumer borrowing rising by $12.18 billion in August, more than 20 percent more than economists had forecast.

Most striking was an 8.1 percent increase in borrowing on revolving credit lines, mostly credit cards, to a record $909 billion.

Credit card borrowings rose at the sharpest rate since early 2002.

So what was it that persuaded consumers to rack up more debt during the month?

Was it the increasing press coverage, no doubt reinforced by friends and family, that their houses were worth less than a month or a year ago?

Or was it the near meltdown in financial and credit markets that prompted a surge in speculation about an upcoming recession?

Quite possibly, it wasn’t because they felt better, but because things had gotten suddenly worse.

“If they had been financing their consumption on the basis of the equity of their homes and suddenly that is cut off then they will have to borrow more through traditional channels,” said Stephen Lewis, economist at Insinger de Beaufort in London.

And August was a very bad month for the substantial minority of Americans who have depended upon housing borrowing to finance ongoing consumption. Not only were house prices continuing their slow, steady march lower, but the world had woken up to the seriousness of the issue and the asset backed financing markets more or less shut.

That meant less housing wealth to borrow and fewer lenders willing to lend against it, either in the form of a home equity loan or refinancing.

So, what’s a borrower to do but put it on the card.

CHAMPAGNE AND CASHMERE, OR BREAD AND GASOLINE?

Retail sales rose just 0.3 percent in August, and when motor vehicles and parts were stripped out, sales fell 0.4 percent, the sharpest drop since September 2006.

Considering that people always have to eat and many Americans have only limited discretion over how much gasoline they use, a period when credit card debt is expanding rapidly while retail sales are contracting points to debt financing of necessities, rather than luxuries.

That, clearly, can’t go on forever.

Falling gasoline prices pulled the government’s measure of August gasoline sales down sharply, weighing on the overall retail sales reading, however.

Ryan Sweet of Moody’s Economy.com notes that mortgage equity withdrawal has been down sharply on a year-on-year basis, a factor that if extended would force consumers further into the arms of their credit card lenders.

Interestingly, the market for credit card based asset-backed securities has recently become quite hot.

Credit card ABS issues in the United States is the only asset-backed segment to experience growth in 2007, up 30 percent on the year to September to $69.2 billion.

Spreads have tightened as well, after having widened considerably over the summer.

Delinquencies are still low, though the most recent data covers only the second quarter. Late payments on bank cards fell in the second quarter to 4.39 percent from 4.41 percent, according to the American Bankers Association.

Given the experience with subprime, you can expect that banks will tighten, indeed may already be tightening, access to consumer credit, and that they will see those low rates of late payers rise.

I think I may have seen this movie before.

James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. At the time of publication Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund

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