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Consumer borrowing soared in March

Americans swiped their credit cards more often in March and took out more loans to attend school. That drove the biggest one-month increase in U.S. consumer borrowing in a decade.

Consumer debt rose by $21.4 billion in March from February, the Federal Reserve said Monday. It was the seventh straight monthly increase and the largest since November 2001.

A measure of auto and student loans increased by $16.2 billion. A separate gauge of mostly credit card debt rose $5.2 billion after declining in January and February.

Total borrowing rose to a seasonally adjusted $2.54 trillion. That's slightly below the all-time high of $2.58 trillion reached in July 2008, eight months after the Great Recession began.

After hitting that peak, consumers cut back sharply on borrowing for two straight years. They slowly began taking on more debt again in the fall of 2010 and in recent months have stepped up their rate of borrowing.

More borrowing is generally viewed as a healthy sign for the economy. It suggests consumers are gaining confidence and growing more comfortable taking on debt.

Analysts said a key factor driving the recent jump in borrowing is stronger hiring since fall.

But another reason more for the increase is more people are going back to school. Student loan debt jumped in March.

The Federal Reserve's borrowing report covers auto loans, student loans and credit cards. It excludes mortgages, home equity loans and other loans tied to real estate.

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