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

The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that borrowing declined by $11.5 billion in February, surprisingly weaker than the small $500 million gain that economists had expected. The February 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.

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.

“This was a disappointing report, showing that households are continuing to pare back credit,” economists at Barclays Capital wrote in a research note.

In percentage terms, the January increase represented a rise of 5.2 percent at an annual rate while the February decline marks a drop of 5.6 percent.

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, which covers auto loans.

A revival in consumer borrowing and spending is seen as crucial to providing support for the overall economy, which is still struggling to emerge from the worst recession since the 1930s.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday that the economy seems to have stabilized and is growing again but threats remain.

“We are far from being out of the woods,” Bernanke told a business audience in Dallas.

Economists are hoping that consumer borrowing will stabilize in coming months and resume growing although they caution that the rebound will be restrained by tighter credit restrictions imposed by many banks in the wake of the financial crisis.

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

The $11.5 billion decline in consumer borrowing in February pushed total borrowing down to $2.45 trillion, 4 percent below where it was a year ago. The Fed’s measure of consumer credit excludes home mortgages and other loans secured by real estate.

While economists have for years worried about the low rate of personal savings in the United States, analysts are now concerned that unless borrowing stabilizes it could derail the recovery because it will crimp consumer demand.


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