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A new analysis suggests Canadians are becoming more hesitant to take on debt, despite typical holiday season largesse at the end of 2011.

The latest report of non-mortgage debt trends in Canada by the TransUnion credit reporting firm shows average credit floated up 1.4 per cent in the fourth quarter last year to $25,960.

That reversed three consecutive quarters of flat growth or reduction on everything from credit card debt to lines of credit, consumer and car loans.

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But TransUnion officials note that the slight increase in average consumer debt at the end of 2011 is in line with historical increases in debt during the Christmas shopping season.

For the year as a whole, however, credit grew by just under 1 per cent, the lowest annual rate since TransUnion began tracking the measure in the first quarter of 2004.

The report will be welcome news to policy makers, including the Bank of Canada, who have long worried that Canadians are taking too much advantage of super-low interest rates and taking on more debt than they can afford long-term.

However, reduced credit may also squeeze the retail economy and affect department store chains and discount and specialty retailers as consumers pare spending when money is tight.

In the most recently reported data from Statistics Canada, households now carry about 153 per cent more in debt than their annual disposable income, with about 70 per cent of that being mortgage debt.

Along with what has been detected as a slowing housing market, the new report suggests Canadians are either heeding the advice of policy-makers or reaching the limits of their tolerance for debt.

TransUnion also reports that:

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– Auto loans registered the biggest increase in the past year, up 9.7 per cent;

– Average credit card debt posted a modest increase in the fourth quarter but is down 1.5 per cent from a year earlier;

– Lines of credit increased by 1.1 per cent in the past year;

– And although debt has risen substantially, delinquency levels continue to remain low in Canada.

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