U.S. consumer credit rises in January on autos

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. consumer credit rose for a fourth straight month in January as households splurged on motor vehicles, further evidence the economy was gaining traction.

The Federal Reserve said on Monday total outstanding credit, which covers everything from car loans to credit cards, increased by $5.01 billion after rising $4.09 billion in December. That was above economists' expectations for a $3.90 billion increase.

"This is just another piece of evidence that consumers are much less risk averse than they were a year ago and the economy is starting to normalize more," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global in New York.

A firming labor market is seeing households grow more confident in the economy's prospects, encouraging some to spend a bit more on big-ticket items.

Non-revolving credit, which includes closed-end loans for big-ticket items such as cars, boats, college education and vacations, increased $9.26 billion after rising $2.07 billion in December.

It was the sixth straight month of gains and likely reflected the 17 percent rise in U.S. auto sales in January.

But so-called revolving, or credit-card credit, fell $4.25 billion in January after a $2.02 billion increase the prior month, a sign that households are still deleveraging.

Revolving credit had risen in December for the first time since August 2008. The decline in January could explain the weak growth in retail sales and consumer spending that month.

Still, economists expect both retail sales and consumer spending picked up in February, which should support credit growth.

"We think that consumer spending is on an uptrend which will translate to further gains in consumer credit outstanding in the months to come," said Nicholas Tenev, an economist at Barclays Capital in New York.

The government is expected to report on Friday that retail sales increased 1.0 percent in February after advancing 0.3 percent the prior month, according to a Reuters survey.

January's weak sales were blamed partly on extreme winter weather in large parts of the country and the anticipated increase last month would reflect a 27 percent jump in auto sales. High gasoline prices are expected to account for a part of the rise.

"We think it's going to be a pretty strong report, partly because of the reversal of weather effects, and partly because the trend seems to have improved significantly as well," said MF Global's O'Sullivan.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by James Dalgleish)