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CONSUMER CREDIT GROWS AT 1 PERCENT ANNUAL RATE

Americans took out just $584 million more in consumer credit than they paid off in April, a sharp slowdown resulting from slackened demand for new automobiles, the government reports.

The Federal Reserve said consumer credit increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.0 percent, down from a 4.0 percent growth rate the previous month.Consumers, who account for about two-thirds of all economic activity, have been selective in their buying recently as the economy slowed because of the Fed's tight-credit policy designed to stem inflation.

Spending on services generally continues to be brisk, but expenditures for big-ticket goods that are purchased with loans have flagged.

Gilbert Benz, an economist with the Swiss Bank Corp. in New York, said consumers are becoming less interested in taking on new debt both because of the amount they already hold and because of high interest rates.

In a possible reflection of future spending, the Conference Board reported this week that its index of consumer confidence dropped to 106.7 in May from 107.3 in April.

Some analysts question whether the Fed report accurately reflects the amount of consumer debt since people have other ways of borrowing, such as home equity loans, that are not included in the survey.

Automobile loans in April fell $2.5 billion, a 10.3 percent annual rate of decline, after gaining 7.5 percent in March.

Automakers had reported a sharp drop in sales in April, a trend that began in the final quarter of last year and continued in May.

Credit card debt increased by a brisk $2.4 billion, an annual rate of 14.0 percent, after rising 10.2 percent the previous month.

But Benz said much of the gain was due to Easter sales and does not represent a trend.

"You'll probably see it pull back down the road," he said.

Bank and credit union loans not secured by real estate rose $735 million, a 4.3 percent annual rate, after falling 6.9 percent in March.

Manufacturing and housing have been the sectors of the economy hardest hit by the Fed's tight-money policy.