American families boosted their debt late last year at the fastest pace since the global financial crisis, an indication of improving consumer confidence as the economy gains steam.
Household debt rose by $241 billion in the fourth quarter, the biggest increase since the third quarter of 2007, according to the data released Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The gain was paced by a $152-billion pickup in mortgage debt, in part because of reduced foreclosures.
“This quarter is the first time since before the Great Recession that household debt has increased over its year-ago levels suggesting that after a long period of deleveraging, households are borrowing again,” said Wilbert van der Klaauw, an economist at the New York Fed.
Still, there were signs of fragility in consumer habits.
Mortgage originations fell $97 billion to $452 billion as home buyers pulled back in the face of higher interest rates, according to the report.
Overall household borrowing, which is $11.5 trillion, remains 9.1% below its pre-crisis peak of $12.7 trillion.
Other data Tuesday pointed to continued financial strains on working people.
A new poll showed that barely half the U.S. population has more in emergency savings than in credit card debt.
Only 51% of respondents said they have more in a rainy-day fund than in credit card debt, according to the study by Bankrate.com. That’s the lowest level since the financial research firm began its survey in 2011.
Of those polled, 28% said they owe more on their cards than they have in savings. An additional 17% said they have no credit card debt but no emergency fund either.
People between the ages of 30 and 64 are most likely to have more debt than emergency savings, according to the survey. Those are prime working years when people are likeliest to need a rainy day reserve to cover an unexpected job loss or financial setback.
“This is a reflection of the stagnant incomes, long-term unemployment and high household expenses that are hampering the financial progress of many Americans,” according to Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst.