Defaults on privately insured U.S. mortgages fell nearly 16 percent in February from the month before but were still half again higher than a year earlier.

The Mortgage Insurance Cos of America, or MICA, on Tuesday said 89,722 insured borrowers were at least 60 days late on payments in February. That was down 15.7 percent from January's 106,484, the highest level on record. The previous record had been 105,110, in December.

Late payments are often a precursor to foreclosure.

In February 2008, 60,911 borrowers were 60 days late -- 47 percent less than in February 2009 -- although the year-to-year comparisons are not exact due to changes in the data-collecting process.

MICA also said that February's total of cures -- or borrowers once headed for foreclosure that are now back on track -- was nearly 33 percent higher than the month before, 67,767 compared with January's 51,093. The total of cures was 41 percent higher than the year-earlier figure.

Lenders and the government have stepped up remediation efforts to keep borrowers out of foreclosure since the U.S. residential market bust.

At the same time, February demand for private mortgage insurance -- which guarantees lenders will be repaid in the event borrowers default -- was down slightly month-to-month and dramatically from a year before.

Private mortgage insurance lets people buy homes with down payments of less than 20 percent, guaranteeing that lenders will be repaid even if borrowers default.

Fewer borrowers may be taking out the insurance because lenders nationwide have tightened underwriting standards, forcing prospective homeowners either to put more money down, buy less costly homes or defer buying.

The number of traditional mortgage insurance policies issued was 56,210 in February, a 5.6 percent dip from January's 59,569, showing that lenders' tighter underwriting standards might be creating a moderate drop in demand from January.

The number of such policies was more than 50 percent lower than a year earlier.

Figures from Radian Group's (RDN.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) Radian Guaranty have only been included since December, after several years of not having been counted.

The inclusion of Radian data and a change last April in another member company's reporting methodology mean year-to-year comparisons of the data are imperfect.

MICA, which has tabulated insurance default data since 2001, compiles its data from information provided by six of the largest U.S. mortgage insurance providers: American International Group Inc's (AIG.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) United Guaranty Corp, Genworth Financial Inc (GNW.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), MGIC Investment Corp (MTG.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), Old Republic International Corp (ORI.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), PMI Group Inc (PMI.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Radian.

Triad Guaranty (TGIC.O: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) has not been included since last year, when it ceased to write new business. (Reporting by Lilla Zuill; Editing by Gary Hill)