U.S. consumer credit unexpectedly tumbled in February, reversing the prior month's surprise increase, as households refrained from taking on new debt in favor of deleveraging.
February's total consumer credit outstanding dropped $11.51 billion or at a 5.62 percent annual rate to $2.45 trillion, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday.
January's figures were sharply revised upward to show a $10.64 billion increase, previously reported as a $4.96 billion rise. Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast consumer credit would rise by $0.5 billion in February.
Analysts said households' continued reduction of their debt load was unlikely to have an impact on consumer spending, which normally accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
But it does point to a lack of confidence on the part of consumers and their caution may well mean this recovery is still a fragile one and the Fed is right to be careful about withdrawing their monetary stimulus, said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York.
The Federal Reserve, which pumped money into the economy to help break the worst downturn since the 1930s, has pledged to keep benchmark interest rates ultra low to nurture the recovery that started in the second half of 2008.
Analysts are hopeful that the job market, which has started to recover, will help to keep consumer spending afloat.
At the same time though, relative to the last business cycle, we expect a higher savings rate and less growth in consumer credit as households return to a more sustainable financial situation, said Zach Pandl, U.S. economist at Nomura Securities International in New York.
Nonrevolving credit, which includes closed-end loans for expensive items such as cars, boats, college education and holidays, slipped $2.07 billion, or at a 1.56 percent annual rate, to $1.59 trillion in February, the Fed said.
Revolving credit, made up of credit and charge cards, tumbled $9.44 billion, or at a 13.06 percent rate, to $858.15 billion, the data showed.
A report by the American Bankers Association released on Tuesday showed loan delinquencies fell in the fourth quarter, marking a second consecutive quarter of improvement.
The association said eight out of 11 categories of consumer loans saw nonpayments fall, with bank card delinquencies dropping to 4.39 percent from 4.77 percent in the third quarter.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)