updated 5/6/2005 4:47:02 PM ET 2005-05-06T20:47:02

Americans increased their borrowing for auto loans and other types of consumer debt at an annual rate of 3.1 percent in March, the smallest gain in four months, the Federal Reserve reported Friday.

Major Market Indices

The March increase represented a rise in consumer credit of $5.52 billion, below the $6 billion increase that economists had been forecasting. It followed a $5.79 billion increase in consumer debt in February.

The 3.1 percent increase at an annual rate in March followed a 3.3 percent rise in February and a huge 6.5 percent surge in January. It represented the smallest percentage increase since a tiny 0.2 percent rise last November.

The consumer has been the standout performer for the economy, boosting personal borrowing to record levels to fuel a buying binge that has provided much of the fuel for the three-year-old economic expansion.

Fears that weaker employment growth might put a damper on spending this year were eased by another report Friday showing that businesses added 274,000 workers in April, far above the 175,000 gain in payrolls that had been forecast.

It was the best showing in two months and came as the government revised up by 93,000 the estimates for job growth in February and March.

Total consumer debt now stands at a record level of $2.126 trillion.

Demand for credit cards and other types of revolving credit edged up at an annual rate of 0.6 percent in March following much bigger gains of 4.8 percent in February and 6.3 percent in January.

Demand for non-revolving debt, a category that includes auto loans, loans for mobile homes, boats and other miscellaneous categories such as loans for vacations and schooling, rose at an annual rate of 4.7 percent in March, more than double the 2.3 percent gain in February.

The consumer credit covered in the Fed report does not include mortgage loans or home equity loans.

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