U.S. households took on debt at a faster clip in the fourth quarter than at any time in seven years, but credit quality measures continued to improve, according to economic reports issued Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other sources.
The $241 billion surge in outstanding household debt was driven mostly by growth in mortgage obligations, but debt from student loans, auto loans and credit cards all increased as well, the New York Fed report said.
"This quarter is the first time since before the Great Recession that household debt has increased over its year-ago levels, suggesting that after a long period of deleveraging, households are borrowing again," Wilbert van der Klaauw, senior vice president and economist at the New York Fed, said in a news release.
Overall, outstanding household debt stood at $11.5 trillion as of the fourth quarter. That was 9.1% below the peak reached in the third quarter of 2008, but 2.1% higher than the third quarter of 2013.
The growth in balances was driven mainly by younger borrowers, according to the New York Fed. Consumers with higher credit scores were largely responsible for the growth in mortgage debt and credit card debt.
A second report released Monday also found that consumers are taking on more debt again. The percentage of Americans who have more credit card debt than emergency savings currently stands at 28%, according to a report from Bankrate.com. That's the highest level since Bankrate began tracking the issue in 2011.
So far, the increased appetite for risk among consumers has not led to a spike in delinquent repayments, according to multiple reports.
The New York Fed report found that delinquency rates of 90 days or more on consumer credit products fell from 5.3% in the third quarter to 5.0% last quarter.
Meanwhile, TransUnion reported Monday that 90-plus day annualized delinquency rates among credit card users fell from 1.61% in the fourth quarter of 2012 to 1.48% in the final quarter of last year.
In addition, a composite index of consumer credit default rates from S&P/Experian fell slightly in January. Last month the index, which includes delinquencies on mortgages, credit cards and auto loans, was 18% below its level from a year earlier.