Major credit card companies reported a year-end surge in plastic spending, a trend economists say bodes well for an emerging economic recovery.

Economists said the sharp rise in usage during the crucial shopping period is a healthy indicator of growing consumer confidence in the economy. In addition to using credit cards, consumers are taking out more loans for cars and other purchases."It's quite a welcome development for the economy," said economist Sandra Shaber.

"If we hadn't had this upturn in borrowing, we would have had a continually anemic consumer sector," said Shaber, an economist at WEFA, an economic forecasting and consulting firm in Philadelphia.

MasterCard said that the volume of charges cleared through retailers soared nearly 24 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Visa reported a 32 percent jump in retail spending on cards.

Both companies said the number of cards issued to Americans has increased from last year, but not enough to explain away the sharp surge in dollar volume of purchases.

MasterCard, for instance, said that individuals on average reached for plastic 10.3 percent more often during the first half of the year.

"People are using their cards more," said Nancy Maffucci, a spokeswoman with MasterCard International, based in New York. "This is consistent with the growth seen this past year in use of credit cards vs. last year."

Dean Witter, Discover & Co., which issues the Discover credit card, declined to provide specific figures but said that usage is way up this holiday shopping period from last year's record levels.

The trend illustrates a growing consumer willingness to pile on debt after the two years of reticence that succeeded the spend-thrift 1980s.

Consumer installment debt totaled $776.7 billion in October, the latest month for which Federal Reserve Bank figures were available - up about 5 percent from the 1992 total and nearly 7 percent from the 1991 total.

During those two years, consumers were busy paying down debt accumulated during the 1980s.

"Consumers had been paring their debt, so they felt better about spending this year," said Albert Coscia, a spokesman at San Francisco-based Visa USA.

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Consumer debt is still far below its peak of last decade. The debt-to-income ratio - a measure comparing consumer debt excluding mortgage loans to disposable income - is 16.2 percent, lower than about 19 percent prior to the economic recession that began in 1990, Shaber said.

The recent increase in credit-card use also indicates the aggressive marketing tactics of card companies vying for customers. Many are offering incentives such as discounts off the price of purchases for consumers who charge the most.

In addition, Shaber said that consumers tended to buy pricier gifts such as computers and home appliances this holiday season, and people generally don't carry enough cash to pay for such big-ticket items.

"Those sort of things do drive cards more sharply," Shaber said.

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