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Consumers Boost Borrowing Despite Prices

May 8, 2007

WASHINGTON - Consumers boosted their borrowing in March at the fastest pace in four months, showing resilience in the face of rising energy prices and a painful housing slump.

The recently-released Federal Reserve report showed consumer credit increased at a brisk annual rate of 6.7 percent in March. That marked a pickup from February's 2.8 percent growth rate and was the biggest increase since November.

Consumer spending is indispensable to a healthy economy. The economy grew at an anemic 1.3 percent pace in the January-to-March quarter, the weakest in four years, due to fallout from the housing slump and belt tightening by businesses. Consumers, however, managed to continue spending, an important factor in keeping the economy moving.

Use of revolving credit, primarily credit cards, rose 9.2 percent in March. That was up from a 2.9 percent growth rate in February and was the biggest increase since November.

Demand for nonrevolving credit used to finance cars, vacations, education and other things, also picked up. Nonrevolving credit use rose at a 5.2 percent pace in March, compared with a 2.7 percent growth rate in February.

The Fed's measure of consumer borrowing does not include mortgages or other loans secured by real estate.

The March increase pushed total consumer debt up by a whopping $13.46 billion to a record $2.43 trillion.

That was a much larger rise than economists were forecasting. They were expecting consumer borrowing to rise by $4.5 billion in March.

Looking ahead though, economists questioned just how much energy consumers will have given recent signs of slowing in job growth around the country.

"This is a strong number but it will be difficult to beat, especially if employment starts to head down a softer path and with gasoline prices heading the way they are," said Rich Yamarone, economist at Argus Research.

The nation's unemployment rate edged up to 4.5 percent in April as just 88,000 new jobs were created, the fewest in more than two years.

Energy prices, meanwhile, have surged to a record nationwide average of $3.07 per gallon, oil industry analyst Trilby Lundberg said Sunday. The previous record was $3.03 per gallon on Aug. 11, 2006.

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