updated 1/8/2009 4:59:58 PM ET 2009-01-08T21:59:58

Consumers cut back on their borrowing by a record amount in dollar terms in November, another sign of trouble for the rapidly weakening economy.

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The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that borrowing on credit cards, and for such things as auto loans, dropped at an annual rate of $7.94 billion in November, the biggest decline in 65 years of record keeping. That also was much larger than the $500 million decline economists expected, and left total consumer credit outstanding at $2.57 trillion.

The drop represented a decline of 3.7 percent from October, which was the biggest fall in percentage terms since a 4.3 percent plunge in January 1998.

Analysts are worried the economy’s troubles could trigger a major retrenchment by consumers that will make the current recession, already the longest in a quarter-century, even worse. Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of total economic output.

The 3.7 percent drop in total borrowing in November followed a 1.3 percent decline in October.

The weakness in November was led by a 3.9 percent plunge in the category that includes auto loans. Borrowing in the category that includes credit cards was down by 3.4 percent.

Consumer borrowing is unlikely to rebound anytime soon. The major automakers reported earlier this week that auto sales plunged by 36 percent in December as huge rebates and zero-percent loans couldn’t persuade Americans to buy a new car.

Every major automaker reported drops of more than 30 percent in December. Chrysler LLC said its sales were down a whopping 53 percent, while General Motors Corp., the other auto company that received emergency government loans last month, saw sales fall by 31 percent.

The Fed’s report on consumer credit does not cover mortgage loans or other borrowing secured by real estate such as home equity loans.

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Home equity type Today +/- Chart
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