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TheStreet Open House

5 Financial Stats Pointing to an Improving Economy

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Economists may have gotten the vapors over the downgrade in last quarter's gross domestic product figures, from an original forecast of 0.1% to a revised final number of -2.9%, making the first quarter of 2014 the worst-performing U.S. economic quarter since the first quarter of 2009, when we were right in the vortex of the Great Recession.

But U.S. consumers don't seem to be worried -- at least, not yet. 

Overall, Americans are spending more with their credit cards and pursuing more loans on things such as cars and homes, signs they are bullish on the economy.

"It is heartening to see that consumers have greatly increased their faith in the future, as evidenced by the way they are ramping up the pace of spending on debt instruments such as credit cards and loans," says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for the Freedom Financial Network. "This isn't surprising, as consumer confidence was markedly higher in May."

That said, too much credit card and personal loan debt helped fuel the run-up to the Great Recession in the first place.

Also see: Why Bank Customers Keep Suffering: Low GDP Means Fed Stays Course

"We do become concerned, however, when debt increases rapidly, as it did in April, while the savings rate continues to decline," Gallegos adds.

That doesn't seem too much of a concern for consumers, who can't help but notice fatter paychecks and bank accounts these days. Economists say they're not wrong in thinking that way.

"Consumer confidence improved slightly in May, as consumers assessed current conditions, in particular the labor market, more favorably," says Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. "Expectations regarding the short-term outlook for the economy, jobs and personal finances were also more upbeat. In fact, the percentage of consumers expecting their incomes to grow over the next six months is the highest since December 2007 (20.2%). Thus, despite last month's decline, consumers' confidence appears to be growing."  

Here is what the Freedom Financial Network is reporting in its quarterly commentary on consumer debt, and how it affects the economy: 

Also see: Negative Bank Rates Have Begun in Europe

Debt is up. Consumer debt rose by 10% from April 2013 to April 2014, with the most recent month showing total consumer debt at its highest monthly level over the past three years. More debt usually equates to stronger confidence in the economy, which should spur GDP growth (two-thirds of the GDP comes from consumer spending.)

Credit card use is rising. Consumers beat back several threats in recent months, including the Target stores data breach and brutal Q1 GDP numbers. Now they're back using credit cards with a vengeance, with April's revolving debt rising, on average, by 12.25%. "Revolving debt had stayed fairly steady from October 2012 until late 2013; had a $10 billion increase in January; and now has climbed by another $10 billion," Freedom Financial Network reports.

Americans are buying more cars, SUVs and trucks. Stronger car-buying activity is another sure sign of a more robust economy. The thinking here is that in tough times, Americans will hang on to their current vehicle for a another year or two. But when they see the economy improving, and income is up, it's off to the dealership for a new set of wheels. Freedom Financial Network says non-revolving credit (mostly vehicle loans) was up 9.5% in April.

Personal is income is up. FFN's data show that personal income rose by $43.7 billion, or 0.3%, in April. More money in more pockets doesn't stay there long -- people will spend if they think their income will continue to strengthen. 

Unemployment is down. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate stands at 6.3%, a stable range, give or take a digit or two, through the first six months of 2014. With more Americans working, and more believing their own jobs are more secure, spending will rise.

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