Fed: Credit card balances dipped by $3 billion in December

Credit card balances edged down in December, even as consumers engaged in holiday shopping, as uncertainty about a second round of stimulus checks extended to the latter part of the month.

Consumer revolving debt – which is mostly based on credit card balances – was down $3 billion on a seasonally adjusted basis in December to $975.9 billion, according to the Fed’s G. 19 consumer credit report released Feb. 5.

In December, credit card balances were off 3.6% on an annualized basis, following November’s revised 0.8% dip and October’s 6.7% drop, which came on the heels of September’s 3.2% annualized gain.

The Fed also reported that student loan debt outstanding for the fourth quarter rose to $1.707 trillion, from the third quarter’s $1.704 trillion. And auto loan debt outstanding gained to $1.228 trillion, from the third quarter’s $1.219 trillion.

Total consumer debt outstanding – which includes student loans and auto loans, as well as revolving debt – continued to grow and rose $9.7 billion to $4.184 trillion in December, a 2.8% annualized gain.

For the entire year, credit card balances were down 11.2%.

Card balances had been growing before the coronavirus impacted consumer spending and bank lending in 2020. They dipped below the $1 trillion mark last May, for the first time since September 2017.

See related: 51% of consumers accrued more debt during the pandemic

ABA sees brighter days ahead for credit availability

The American Bankers Association reports, based on input provided by chief economists of large North American banks to its credit conditions index for the first quarter of 2021, that credit conditions (both credit quality and availability) have rebounded from their lows of last summer.

However, all three components of the index (the headline credit index, the consumer credit index and the business credit index) remain below 50, which is not a robust index reading. It indicates that while bank economists expect credit conditions to remain “soft” in the coming six months, they are less pessimistic than they were in September 2020 when the ABA  conducted its last credit conditions survey.

The consumer credit index component of the survey gained to 45.3, its highest level since mid-2019. Economists are optimistic about both the availability and quality of consumer credit compared to September. They expect credit to be more available to consumers in the coming six months, although a small majority expects credit quality to decline.

“Although credit quality is still expected to worsen over the first half of the year for both consumers and businesses, the overall outlook for credit markets has improved significantly since the summer and fall,” said Rob Strand, ABA senior economist. “As widespread inoculations against the virus and new fiscal stimulus measures help heal the economy, banks will continue to work closely with policymakers, consumers and businesses to ensure that affordable credit remains available and recovery strengthens.”

Fed reports easing of credit card lending standards in fourth quarter

According to the Fed’s senior loan officer opinion survey on bank lending practices for January 2021 (which is based on input related to the fourth quarter of 2020), a “moderate net share of banks” reported that they had eased up on credit card loans.

As a result, a “modest net share of banks” also hiked up their credit limits on credit card accounts. And a “moderate net share of banks” reported that there was higher demand for credit card loans during the fourth quarter.

As for the outlook, a “significant net share of banks” is expected to ease up on their standards for credit card loans. They are doing so in anticipation of an improvement in their loan portfolios’ credit quality, as well as a hike in their tolerance for risk.

Also, the New York Fed’s survey of consumer expectations for December 2020 finds that consumers are less concerned about the possibility of missing a minimum debt payment in the coming three months. The average perceived probability of this occurrence dipped to 10.5% for December, from November’s 10.9%.

See related: What happens when you miss a credit card payment?

Jobs edge up in January

The New York Fed survey also finds that on average fewer consumers expect the unemployment rate to be higher a year from now, with this probability declining to 38.9%, from November’s 40.1%.

While the average perceived probability of losing a job in the coming 12 months rose up a bit to 15% (mainly on account of those without a college degree), respondents were also more likely to leave their job voluntarily. However, they were less optimistic about landing a new job if they lost their current ones.

The U.S employment situation was about stable in January, with the economy adding 49,000 jobs, the government reported Feb. 5. “The labor market continued to reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain it,” according to the Department of Labor’s employment report media release. The unemployment rate dipped 0.4 percentage points to 6.3% and average hourly earnings were up $0.06 to $29.96. Also, the job numbers for both November and December were revised down, with November down 77,000 jobs (to 264,000) and December losing an additional 87,000 jobs (to minus 227,000).

In his daily email commentary, Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, noted, “Coupled with the -159K net revision, this is a significantly softer report than expected, at least in terms of payrolls. Bulls will cite the large and unexpected drop in the unemployment rate, but two-third(s) of the decline was due to a 405K drop in the size of the labor force – a sign of discouragement – while household employment rose 201K.”

He added that “the labor market was frozen at the start of the year, and is completely dependent on the pace of reopening, which in turn is contingent on the speed and sustainability of the fall in hospitalizations.”

Source: creditcards.com