Economy Watch: Online Retail Sales, Consumer Debt On the Rise

Consumers continue to spend, even as they take on more household debt, reflecting their continued optimism about the state of the U.S. economy.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons user Intel Free Press
Image via Flickr Creative Commons user Intel Free Press

Online U.S. retail sales, which have had a long history of doing nothing but increasing quarter after quarter for over a decade, continued to increase during the fourth quarter of last year (adjusted for the fact that all retail sales spike at that time of the year), the U.S. Census Bureau reported on Friday. Quarter-over-quarter, sales were up 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Compared with a year ago, e-commerce sales increased by a healthy 14.3 percent. Total U.S. retail sales were up 4.1 percent for the same period. E-commerce sales in the fourth quarter of 2016 accounted for 8.3 percent of total sales, the bureau reported. Ten years ago, the share of e-commerce sales was just north of 3 percent.

Separately on Friday, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said in its Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit that total household debt increased substantially–by $226 billion, or a 1.8 percent increase–to $12.58 trillion during the fourth quarter of 2016. That marked the largest quarterly increase in total household debt since the fourth quarter of 2013.

Also, such debt is now just 0.8 percent below its peak of $12.68 trillion reached in the third quarter of 2008, though that figure isn’t adjusted for the relatively small amount of inflation that the economy experiences every year. Moreover, all kinds of consumer debt are up. That consumers are willing to take on higher debt loads–and lenders are willing to let them do it–is an indication of optimism among consumers and lenders about the state of the economy.