updated 3/6/2009 3:49:58 PM ET 2009-03-06T20:49:58

U.S. consumer borrowing rose unexpectedly in January after three months of declines.

Major Market Indices

The Federal Reserve said Friday that borrowing increased at an annual rate of $1.76 billion in the first month of the year. Economists expected borrowing to decline at a rate of $5 billion.

Still, the small rise in January is unlikely to shake economists' views that borrowing will remain weak this year as consumers tighten their belts in the face of massive layoffs and the recession. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.

The small increase came mainly from the category that includes credit cards, which rose at a 1.2 percent rate in January after dropping 9.5 percent in December.

The category that covers auto loans also showed a small increase of 0.6 percent after a tiny rise of 0.1 percent in December.

Consumer borrowing fell at an annual rate of $7.48 billion in December, which followed an $9.13 billion drop in November. The December figure was slightly larger than previously reported while the November number was smaller.

But the U.S. economy, especially the labor market, appeared to darken last month. The government reported Friday that the unemployment rate surged to a 25-year high of 8.1 percent in February as employers slashed another 651,000 jobs. Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost a net total of 4.4 million jobs, with more than half coming in the past four months.

Americans, worried about the possibility that they could be laid off, have cut back on their spending and reduced borrowing. Many are trying to rebuild their savings to help cope with a recession that is already the longest in more than a quarter-century.

The government reported Monday that the personal savings rate jumped to 5 percent in January, the highest level since 1995.

The cutbacks in consumer spending have been a severe drag on the economy. The gross domestic product fell at an annual rate of 6.2 percent in the final three months of 2008, the biggest decline in 26 years. About half of that drop stemmed from a sharp falloff in consumer spending during the fourth quarter.

The nation's retailers and automakers have been hit especially hard by the slowdown in consumer spending. U.S. automakers reported that sales dropped 41 percent in February compared with the same month last year despite offers of huge rebates and low-interest loans.

Sales at General Motors Corp. fell 52 percent, Ford Motor Co. reported a 48 percent decline and Chrysler LLC's sales dropped 44 percent.

The small borrowing increases in January left total consumer credit at $2.564 trillion in January. The Fed report does not include loans backed by real estate, which means home mortgages and home equity lines of credit are not covered.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.91%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.20%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.57%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.42%
13.40%
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Source: Bankrate.com