What credit crunch?

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Synovate, a firm that tracks credit-card mail volume, today released its third-quarter figures. Not surprisingly, folks are getting a lot fewer offers in their mailboxes these days: 940 million pitches went out in the first nine months of 2008, down 27% from the same period in 2007.

But, in a fascinating little twist, both credit lines and spending increased:

Despite the decline in offers for new cards, US consumers still have access to an increasing amount of credit. Household credit lines across all cards edged up to an average of $27,626 per household (YTD 3Q 2008) from $26,902 in 2007 despite evidence that issuers are cutting credit lines on certain customers.

Average balances and monthly new charges also continue to increase. Among households that carry a card balance, the average balance is up to $7,539 per household (YTD 3Q 2008) versus $7,008 in 2007. Monthly new charges are up to $1,533 from $1,402 over the same time period.

“Much has been reported about issuers reducing credit lines for certain customers but this is not the case for the majority of people. Across the industry as a whole, we continue to see credit access and usage at record high levels,” said [Andrew] Davidson, [vice president of competitive tracking services for Synovate’s financial services group].

What’s up with that? I have a few (speculative) thoughts. First, the third quarter ended on September 30, and October was really the month that crystallized  the feeling that we’re in a recession and maybe people shouldn’t be so willy-nilly with their spending. There could also be some old-fashioned Tale of Two Americas at play: the majority of the cutback in card offers happened at households with incomes under $50,000.

Or, if I wanted to be a bit more dire, I might say that when people lose their jobs and don’t have cash on hand, they wind up charging more, not less. And then of course it might actually be possible that, despite proclamations of a return to thrift, it’s going to take more than what we’ve seen so far to wean American consumers off their addiction to debt.