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Consumer borrowing falls $11.5B in February

WASHINGTON - Consumer borrowing fell again in February, reflecting weakness in credit cards and auto loans, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday. Analysts said the sharp reduction showed that the weak economy is still making consumers hesitant to take on more debt.

The Federal Reserve said borrowing declined by $11.5 billion in February, surprisingly weaker than the small $500 million gain economists had expected. The decline was the 12th decrease in the past 13 months as consumers slash borrowing in the face of a deep economic recession and high unemployment.

Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity.

Analysts said consumer borrowing is being held back by lingering fears about job security with unemployment still near 10 percent and a move by banks to tighten credit standards following the severe financial crisis of the past two years.

Christopher Rupkey, an economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York, said the job worries were a bigger factor holding back borrowing than the tighter lending standards.

"Consumers are still cautious. Their wealth is down from pre-crisis levels, and they are still finding it difficult to get a job," he said. "Their caution means this recovery is still fragile."

In January, borrowing rose by $10.6 billion, a gain that had broken a record 11 consecutive declines. While that increase was revised up from an original estimate of a gain of $5 billion, the revisions showed even larger declines in previous months.

The February weakness reflected a sizable 13.6 percent drop in revolving loans, the category that includes credit card debt, and a smaller 1.6 percent decline in nonrevolving loans, the category that covers auto loans.

Consumers who would like to borrow are finding it hard to get credit at banks, which are being pushed by regulators to bolster their lending standards.

Meanwhile, in a positive sign for the economy, a bankers group said Wednesday that delinquencies on consumer loans declined in the last three months of 2009, marking the second consecutive quarter of improvement, and a sampling of data suggests the trend has continued this year.

Delinquencies fell in eight of 11 consumer loan categories in the fourth quarter, including credit cards and loans for cars, boats and recreational vehicles, the American Bankers Association said. The survey considered a loan delinquent if at least one payment had been missed.

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