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Canadians back to borrowing as average consumer debt hits new high

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The average consumer's total debt load increased by almost 6 per cent to a record-smashing $27,485 at the end of 2012, amid disturbing signs of an upswing in the amount of debt Canadians are taking on.

Last year saw the largest year-over-year increase of its kind for a fourth quarter since 2009, according to the latest quarterly report on credit trends by TransUnion, released Tuesday.

On a quarter-over-quarter basis, consumer debt rose 2.7 per cent, the largest such increase between the third and fourth quarters since 2008, says the report, noting that a year-end increase in personal debt isn't surprising over the holiday shopping season.

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Annual growth in the debt load had been slowing since late 2009, easing from 8.9 per cent to 1 per cent in 2011, according to TransUnion's data.

"The rise on a year-over-year basis should be more concerning as Canadians' debt loads increased by more than $1,500," TransUnion vice-president of analytics and decision services, Thomas Higgins, said in a news release.

Bank of Canada officials and federal government ministers have been warning Canadians about the dangers of accumulating too much debt, stressing that many consumers could find themselves in trouble once interest rates go up.

"There could be difficulties for some consumers if there are any short-term [economic] shocks, let alone a full-blown recession," Mr. Higgins said in an interview.

But he added that Canadians continue to manage their repayment obligations fairly well, with delinquency levels low across all major product categories.

British Columbia was the only province to show a decline in average debt levels in the fourth quarter of 2012, albeit a marginal 0.09 per cent.

Alberta and Quebec had exceptionally high increases, at 11.2 per cent and 9.4 per cent respectively, said Mr. Higgins. The average debt in Alberta stood at $37,377, while that for Quebec consumers was $20,102.

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TransUnion said there were consumer debt increases in the latest period across all product categories.

Average credit card borrower debt posted a modest 0.12 per cent year-over-year increase – the first increase in over two years – boosted by a strong seasonal increase of 1.79 per cent on a quarter-over-quarter basis.

Lines of credit (LOC) borrower debt rose 2.64 per cent year over year following two quarters of decline, with an above-average increase of 3.52 per cent quarter over quarter.

Installment-loan borrower debt was up 6.71 per cent year over year – the largest increase in two years – and 1.64 per cent quarter over quarter.

Auto borrower debt increased 8.93 per cent year over year and 0.61 per cent quarter over quarter.

Delinquencies on credit cards were at 0.30 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2012, while lines-of-credit delinquencies stood at 0.18 per cent, the report says.

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About the Author
Quebec Business Correspondent

Bertrand has been covering Quebec business and finance since 2000. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2000, he was the Toronto-based national business correspondent for Southam News. He has a B.A. from McGill University and a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson. More

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