Americans May Have Become Too Conservative About Debt

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The employment picture is improving, consumer confidence is up, home prices have started to recover, and interest rates are at all-time lows. It sounds like a great time to borrow money. Quite the opposite: Consumer debt levels are falling.

Is it possible Americans have become too conservative about debt?

"Across the country, consumers remain cautious about taking on new debt," Equifax ( EFX), the credit-data firm, reported Thursday. "Overall consumer debt levels fell $256 billion in the third quarter versus the same period a year ago."

That is a 2.28% decline in debt over the 12-month period. Equifax notes that the decline is the smallest since the second quarter of 2009, suggesting that consumers may be feeling a bit less cautious than in recent years. Still, Americans' eagerness to borrow is so entrenched that the conservative behavior is curious given the economic improvements of the past year.

Not that we're giving up on debt. "U.S. consumers currently owe $11 trillion across all types of debt, with mortgage debt accounting for a little more than three-quarters of that amount," Equifax said. "Mortgage debt fell 3.4% in the third quarter, compared to the same period a year ago. Non-mortgage consumer debt actually increased 0.7%."

The biggest decline in debt is found, as one would expect, in the regions hit hardest by the financial crisis and housing collapse -- California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona.

On the other hand, consumers are taking on debt to buy cars, with auto-loan debt increasing 7.1% over the 12-month period. That's probably a combination of improving consumer confidence and necessity, as drivers who delayed purchases in the wake of the recession find they must replace vehicles that are getting old.

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