SAN FRANCISCO – About 130 millions Americans soon will get tax rebates intended to spur spending, but only about a quarter of the money will go towards that, if history proves correct.

So says Emily Kolinski Morris, a senior economist at Ford Motor Co., citing what happened when the federal government issued a similar tax rebate seven years ago.

“An estimated 25% of rebate checks were spent in 2001, and that is expected this time around, too,” she says at a Consumer Bankers Assn.’s auto finance conference here.

She cites a survey taken this year indicating 43% of Americans will use the money to pay off debts, 26% will save it and 24% will spend it.

That leaves one banker at the conference torn.

“As an automotive lender, do I want people to take the money and pay off debt or take it and buy a car?” says Nicholas Stanutz, senior vice president of the Huntington National Bank. “I have mixed feelings.”

A 25% spend rate of the funds would raise real gross domestic product growth by about a half a percentage point for the year. But if the money used for debt payments make room for additional spending, the full-year impact approaches a full percentage point, Morris says.

“It does have a meaningful effect on growth,” she says of the rebate program. “It is designed to smooth out growth so other actions, such as interest rate cuts, take effect.”

The rebates will range from $300 to $600, or $1,200 for married couples, plus $300 for each dependent child.

The 2001 rebates widely were credited with curtailing that year’s recession.

“Studies show temporary tax rebates have a near-term effect on economic growth but that fades after the checks are distributed,” Morris says.

Not particularly good for consumer spending in general and car buying in particular is that Americans are spending more of their disposable income on interest payments for loans.

“That went up 14.3% in 2007, and it’s a significant increase,” Morris says.

Another hindrance to major consumer spending is a tightening of credit standards by banks, making it more difficult and more expensive to finance big-ticket purchases, such as vehicles.

“That is one of the biggest uncertainties when you look at growth in coming months,” Morris says of the credit pinch due in part to deteriorating credit market conditions.

Rising gasoline prices usually don’t hurt vehicle sales, “but do affect segmentation,” she says, citing a downturn in light-truck sales and an upturn in cross/utility vehicle deliveries.

U.S. light-vehicle sales totaled 16.1 million units in 2006. Ford and others originally forecasted auto-industry sales of about 15.7 million units this year.

But that remains under review as conditions develop, Morris says. “If anyone can accurately predict that number, we have a job for you at Ford Motor Co.”

She declines to predict when the industry might see sales exceed 17 million units again. The last time was 17.1 million in 2001, following 17.4 million in 2000.

“The industry sold a lot of cars at the beginning of the decade,” she says. “You could say it was a bubble. But by 2010, a lot of those vehicles will come back as scrappage and cause replacement demand.”

That’s “a good underpinning” for strong auto sales in the near future, Morris says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com