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US consumer borrowing rose $17.5 billion in March, biggest increase in 13 months

FILE - In this March 5, 2012 file photo, consumer credit cards are posed for a photo in North Andover, Mass. The Federal Reserve releases consumer credit data for March 2014 on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

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FILE - In this March 5, 2012 file photo, consumer credit cards are posed for a photo in North Andover, Mass. The Federal Reserve releases consumer credit data for March 2014 on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

WASHINGTON - Consumers increased their borrowing in March by the largest amount in more than a year, using their credit cards and taking out more auto and student loans.

Consumer borrowing increased $17.5 billion in March, up from a gain of $13 billion in February, the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday. It was the biggest monthly increase since a $19.3 billion advance in February 2013.

The category that includes auto and student loans rose $16.4 billion while the category that covers credit card borrowing increased $1.1 billion.

The overall increase in consumer debt pushed total borrowing to a record $3.14 trillion.

Gains in borrowing are seen as an encouraging sign that people are more confident and willing to take on debt.

Increased household borrowing can fuel higher consumer spending, which accounts for 70 per cent of economic activity.

The rise in credit card borrowing in March followed a sizable decline of $2.7 billion in February and likely reflected the pickup in retail sales in March.

The gain in borrowing for autos and student loans had also been expected given that auto sales posted a solid gain in March.

Borrowing on credit cards plunged during the recession as consumers tried to lower their debt during a period when millions of people were losing their jobs and many people still working were worried about the threat of layoffs.

Credit card borrowing started rising again in 2011 but the increases have lagged far behind the category that covers auto and student loans. Economists said that many households have become more cautious about taking on high-interest debt.

Credit card debt in March was still 16.2 per cent below its peak reached in July 2008. Credit card debt stood at $856.7 billion in March, up just 0.9 per cent from a year ago.

The measure of auto loans and student loans in March stood at $2.28 trillion, up 7.8 per cent from a year ago. It has been up for 31 consecutive months going back to September 2011.

A separate quarterly report on consumer credit done by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that student loan debt has been the biggest driver of borrowing since the recession officially ended in June 2009.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin said last week that the large rise in student loan debt in recent years raised concerns about whether those participating in the program were getting the information they needed to avoid falling behind in their payments.

She said at the end of last year there were more than 40 million recipients of student loans and approximately $1.1 trillion in student loan debt connected to federal student loan programs outstanding.

"Nearly 7 million Americans are now in default on a federal student loan," Raskin said in her first major speech since taking over the No. 2 job at Treasury. "We must ask the hard questions about why these borrowers were unable to enrol in loan modification programs ... with their federal student loan servicer to avoid default."

The Fed's borrowing report tracks credit card debt, auto loans and student loans but not mortgages or home equity loans.

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