Federal Reserve: Student and auto loans driving growth of consumer debt

The U.S. Federal Reserve recently reported that consumer borrowing picked up in February, climbing by $16.5 billion to reach $3.13 trillion – a record high. This figure doesn't include mortgages or home equity loans, so the total amount of money owed by American consumers is actually even higher.

Credit card debt declined by $2.4 billion in February, which represents the continuation of a long-running trend. Households have been trying to shed high-interest debt since the recession and economists who spoke to the Associated Press said they believe many consumers remain wary of taking on new financial obligations.

However, as the numbers show, not all types of debt are viewed the same. The overall increase in debt tracked by the Fed was driven primarily by an increase of nearly $19 million in the category that includes student and auto loans. This category of debt has grown during every month but one since May 2010. A separate report from the New York Fed supported the U.S. central bank's findings, showing that student loans have been the main driver of consumer debt since 2009.

The increase in auto loans may show that consumers are releasing pent-up demand as a result of rising confidence in the economy. Given that consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, this could be a positive sign.

Consumers may be more optimistic, but that doesn't mean lenders can afford to be complacent about credit risk. Even in an improving economy, having sound amortization schedules in place is critical for ensuring that loans will be paid back in a timely manner.