Consumer debt rises in fourth quarter for first time in 4 years: NY Fed

Consumer debt rose in the final months of 2012 for the first time in four years, a sign that Americans may be starting to reach the end of cutting back on credit, data from the New York Federal Reserve showed on Thursday.

Total consumer debt rose 0.3 percent to $11.34 trillion in the fourth quarter of last year compared to the previous quarter, the New York Fed said in its quarterly household debt and credit report.

Consumer debt peaked in the third quarter of 2008 as the global financial crisis was taking hold. Since then, debt has fallen by about by 10 percent, or $1.3 trillion, in large part due to a drop in outstanding mortgages as Americans modified or defaulted on their loans.

With consumer activity accounting for about two-thirds of the economy, signs of more appetite for debt could bode well for the overall recovery.

"The data provides early evidence that consumers may be reaching the end of the four year deleveraging cycle, though we'll need to see if this is sustained in upcoming quarters," Andrew Haughwout, vice president and economist at the New York Fed, said in a statement.

Delinquency rates continued to improve with 8.6 percent of debt in some stage of delinquency, down from 8.9 percent in the third quarter. As well, fewer Americans were delinquent on their home loans, with 5.6 percent of mortgages 90 days or more behind on payments, down from 5.9 percent.

Mortgage balances were roughly unchanged at $8.03 trillion, though the amount of new loans made in the fourth quarter rose to $533 billion. Originations have been increasing since hitting a bottom in the third quarter of 2011.

As Americans have been paring back on housing debt, student loans have been on the rise. Outstanding student loans rose by $10 billion to $966 billion last quarter.

The amount of student loans that were 90 days or more past due rose to 11.7 percent.

(Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)