By Jennifer Leigh Parker, Writer, CNBC.com NEW YORK ( CNBC) -- The American consumer appears to be levering-up again. But the big debate among economists is whether borrowing signals economic growth or economic strain. According to the Federal Reserve's latest report, total consumer borrowing reached $2.5 trillion in December of last year, nearly matching the pre-recession level. Another $17.78 billion was added in January, more than the $10.45 billion expected.
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In total, the Federal Reserve's borrowing report covers auto loans, student loans and credit cards, and excludes real estate loans, such as mortgages and home equity loans. Economist Peter Morici from the University of Maryland points out that high student debt levels are a factor of the unemployment rate -- which is still 8.3%. "People are going back to school because they can't find a job," he said. "Most consumer credit has been auto loans and higher education." Even on the heels of Wednesday's ADP report, which showed private sector jobs rising by 216,000, Morici still contends that depressed income levels continue to hamper spending and growth. "Consumption has been constant. There's been no real growth in personal income and spending for the last three months," he said. For the bears, just because borrowing is up doesn't necessarily mean the economy is improving. But all three economists actually agree on the bullish credit scenario: if credit card debt shoots up today, they expect consumer spending to follow in the second half of this year. "If we get a big jump in credit card debt, the consumer will be spending more. In 2012, we're looking at 2 to 2.4% growth in consumer spending," concluded Morici. --Written by Jennifer Leigh Parker at CNBC.