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Consumer credit surges by most since 2001

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. consumer credit surged 10 percent in November, its biggest jump in a decade in a positive signal for the economy as consumers tapped their credit cards and the government doled out more student loans.

Outstanding consumer credit increased by $20.37 billion during the month, the Federal Reserve said on Monday. That was the biggest gain since November 2001 and nearly three times the median forecast in a Reuters poll.

Revolving credit, which mostly measures credit-card use, rose $5.60 billion, a third straight monthly increase.

"Credit growth is a positive sign for the recovery in that it signals increasing demand and willingness to spend," said Paul Edelstein, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Edelstein said, however, that there was a risk the credit growth could be a sign that chronic unemployment was leading more people to turn to credit to fund necessary expenditures.

The government said late last month that consumer spending edged up just 0.2 percent in November, with households cutting back on their saving.

JPMorgan economist Daniel Silver said the increase in credit card borrowing might have been aided by some big banks imposing new fees on debit card use. It "may have pushed people to favor credit cards over debit cards," he said.

The increase in consumer credit was the 13th in 14 months and the biggest jump since creditors boosted lending in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.

Nonrevolving credit, which includes student and auto loans, rose a seasonally adjusted $14.78 billion in November.

Government lending to students appeared to be a significant factor in the increase, rising $6.4 billion. Unlike the broader credit gauges, the student lending data is not adjusted for seasonal fluctuations.

Over the 12 months through November, government loans to students rose 31.9 percent, outperforming any other kind of non-revolving loans tracked by the Fed, including those made by commercial banks.

However, there are some signs the surge in student lending registered since the last recession is tapering off. Year-over-year increases in student lending peaked at 78 percent in September 2010 and have trended lower since then.

(Corrects second paragraph to say credit increased by $20.37 billion, instead of increased to $20.37 billion)

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Leslie Adler)

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