Fed Says Household Debt Declined 0.7% in Third Quarter

Household debt in the U.S. fell 0.7 percent during the third quarter as a decline in real-estate borrowing outpaced rising student and auto loans, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York survey.

Consumer indebtedness shrank by $74 billion to $11.31 trillion, according to a quarterly report on household debt and credit released today by the Fed district bank. Mortgage debt declined by $120 billion to $8.03 trillion, the lowest since 2006. Home-equity lines of credit fell by $16 billion, even as mortgage originations increased for the fourth straight quarter.

“Consumers seeing their balance sheets recovering are getting more confident,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva, U.S. economist at BNP Paribas SA in New York. “Deleveraging is still a headwind because people want to lower their debt, instead of putting it into consumption.”

A housing-market recovery is bolstering household finances, supporting the spending that accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. economy. Home prices rose 3 percent in the year ended in September, the S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values in 20 cities showed today, and the Conference Board’s index of consumer sentiment climbed to a four-year high this month.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (SPX) retreated a second day, losing 0.5 percent to 1,398.94 and paring its advance for this year to 11 percent, after U.S. lawmakers indicated that they’re not making progress in talks to avert the so-called fiscal cliff of spending cuts and tax increases. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury slumped 0.03 percentage point to 1.64 percent.

Cutting Debt

Americans have cut debt by $1.37 trillion from the peak in the third quarter of 2008, according to the New York Fed’s data.

Borrowing outside of home financings climbed by 2.3 percent in the third quarter to $2.7 trillion as auto debt increased by $18 billion, student loans rose by $42 billion and credit-card balances grew by $2 billion, the survey showed.

“The increase in mortgage originations, auto loans and credit-card balances suggests that consumers are slowly gaining confidence in their financial position,” Donghoon Lee, a senior economist at the New York Fed, said in a statement. “As consumers feel more comfortable, they may start to make purchases that were previously delayed.”

Student-loan borrowing rose to $956 billion as of the end of September, today’s report showed. New debt accounted for $23 billion of the increase, and the remaining $19 billion was attributed to previously defaulted loans that were updated on credit reports during the quarter, the district bank said.

The New York Fed said the report is based on data compiled by the bank’s Consumer Credit Panel, a nationally representative random sample from Equifax Inc. (EFX) credit-report data.

The Conference Board’s confidence index climbed to 73.7, the highest since February 2008, from a revised 73.1 reading the prior month, figures from the New York-based private research group showed today. The share of Americans planning to buy a house rose to a record.

To contact the reporter on this story: Caroline Salas Gage in New York at csalas1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Wellisz at cwellisz@bloomberg.net

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