Economy

Apr 8, 2009

CreditWatch: ‘Green shoots’ in US economy turning brown

The US economy appears to be steadying but a turnaround is far from assured, writes Glenn Dyer.

Glenn Dyer — <em>Crikey</em> business and media commentator

Glenn Dyer

Crikey business and media commentator

Is another of those 'green shoots' in the American economy starting to brown? Positive retail sales figures for January and February, along with better housing figures for new and existing home sales in February, are among the developments analysts point to in their eagerness to build a case for an economy steadying and perhaps turning higher. Steadying perhaps, turning around, hardly. Two pieces of data cast doubt on the real strength of retail spending and consumer confidence, as well as the durability of any rebound in housing. Both bits of information reveal that the key parts to the US economic slump and recovery: housing and consumption, are not healthy. In fact they are ailing badly. Consumer credit fell in February, led by a sharp decline in credit card usage, as the recession and rising unemployment forced consumers to trim spending. Total consumer borrowing fell a seasonally adjusted $US7.4 billion, or 3.5%, to $2.564 trillion in February, according to the Federal Reserve. The market had forecast a fall of of $US1.5 billion in February after January saw a revised surprise jump of $US8.1 billion in total consumer borrowing. The Fed figures show that revolving credit, (which includes credit card debt), dropped a sharp $US7.8 billion, or nearly 10% to $US955.7 billion. Non-revolving credit -- which includes car and student loans -- rose $US300 million, or 0.3%, to $US1.608 trillion. These figures do not cover real estate transactions. Last August, consumer credit contracted for the first time since January 1998. It rebounded briefly in September before contracting again, falling over the last three months of 2008, then rose again in January. Bank lending fell sharply, according to Fed, down around $US13 billion, from $US895 billion in January to $US882 billion in February as they continue to tighten lending standards. The green shoots' argument about the economy's steadying and possible rebounding have flowed from those better home sales figures and reports last month indicating consumer spending had started to stabilize in January and February. Personal spending rose 0.2% in February after a 1% rise in January and retail sales (minus car sales) rose 1.6% in January and 0.7% in February. But while consumers were spending more in February (even though it was a slower and lower month than January), they weren't doing it as much with credit. That means they have been using up cash holdings, which in turn means many people will have less fat to protect themselves and their mortgages, where millions face more pressures. Moody's reported last week that uncollectible credit-card debt rose in February. It said charge-offs against the income of card issuers hit 8.82%, the most in the 20 years that Moody’s has kept figures. And Reuters reported that 7% of US homeowners with mortgages were at least 30 days late on their loans in February, an increase of more than 50% from February, 2008. Equifax, which is a big US credit reporting group, said that nearly 40% of subprime borrowers were at least 30 days behind on their home mortgage loans, up 23.7% from last year. Equifax said its figures showed the impact of soaring unemployment on debt payments. Access to credit cards is contracting as lenders cut back on credit and lift standards and cancel cards. Equifax said US banks closed 8 million credit card accounts in February, reducing the number of open cards to 400 million from a July 2008 peak of 483 million. As a result credit limits fell as well, to $US3.27 trillion in February from a July 2008 peak of $US3.59 trillion. And on those open cards, Equifax told Reuters that 4.5% of total balances on bank-issued credit cards were at 60 days past due in February, up nearly 33% on February, 2008. In a way that explains the weakness in consumer credit: fewer cards, smaller advances and limits and less activity by fewer card holders, more of whom are behind on their payments. That's not a recipe for a rebound in the US economy at anytime, let alone now.

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