Ever since July, the markets have feared a big slowdown in consumer spending. Yet despite the fact that investors are blaming the subprime crisis for everything from lower earnings at big brokerage houses to falling chip sales, statistics haven't shown any big drop.
Last week the Federal Reserve released consumer credit figures for August. Outstanding credit rose at nearly a 6% annual pace in August, well above levels for the previous two months and in line with the general trend that has prevailed since the early 1990s. Figures for both revolving credit, such as credit card debt, and non-revolving debt, like car and student loans, rose.
This stands in stark contrast to anecdotal evidence across the lending spectrum. According to The Wall Street Journal, credit card lenders like Bank of America
One problem with the Fed's figures is that they don't show the whole picture. The Fed's statistics exclude mortgages and other loans backed by real estate. That raises the possibility that consumers are rotating their debt load away from real estate toward credit cards and other types of loans. With the ease and potential tax benefits from using home equity loans and mortgages to get cash, consumers were able to leverage low rates and appreciating home prices for years to meet their liquidity needs. Now that mortgage markets have started to tighten, consumers may be turning back to their credit cards to get their cash fix.
But this isn't a new theory. Fellow Fool Tim Beyers wrote more than a year ago about how consumers can't keep spending on credit forever. Polling expert Gallup is convinced the credit crunch is coming.
But the threat of a slowdown hasn't materialized. And after all the false alarms in the past, consumers may find themselves ill-prepared for a full-scale credit crunch, if one actually happens this time.
Getting what you need
No matter what the future holds, now is a good time to review your credit situation. If you think you'll need credit in the near future, you'll probably need to plan more carefully to get the best deals. Specifically, here are things to watch out for:
- Changing credit terms. Facing losses from bad loans, financial institutions will be looking for ways to recoup those losses from their paying customers. So be on the lookout for notices and enclosures in your credit card bills -- you may find in the fine print that your credit card company has changed terms that could trip you up, bringing big fees and finance charges.
- Pre-planning to borrow. The days of fast-and-loose borrowing are over. That means you should do everything you can to line up credit before you need it. If you're thinking about buying a home, getting preapproved for a mortgage can save you a lot of time and hassles down the road.
- Cash is king. If you're fully invested in the booming stock market, you've been well rewarded. But you never know when the markets will turn around -- possibly on a dime. If you're thinking about a big purchase, now's not a bad time to take some profits and build a bigger cash reserve. Selling assets to raise cash may not help your long-term returns, but it will ease your dependence on credit.
It's natural to be fearful of change, especially when it can adversely affect your financial life. With some forethought, however, you can take action to make sure you'll have the credit you need when you need it.
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