updated 3/12/2009 12:38:48 PM ET 2009-03-12T16:38:48

The net worth of American households fell by the largest amount in more than a half-century of record keeping during the fourth quarter of last year.

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The Federal Reserve said Thursday that household net worth dropped by a record 9 percent from the level in the third quarter.

The decline was the sixth straight quarterly drop in net worth and underscored the battering that U.S. families are undergoing in the midst of a steep recession with unemployment surging and the value of their homes and investments plunging.

Net worth represents total assets such as homes and checking accounts minus liabilities like mortgages and credit card debt.

Family net worth had hit an all-time high of $64.36 trillion in the April-June quarter of 2007 but has fallen in every quarter since that time.

The record 9 percent drop in the fourth quarter pushed total net worth down to $51.48 trillion, a level that is 20 percent below the third quarter 2007 peak.

After five straight years of sharp increases in home prices, the housing bubble burst in 2007, sending shockwaves through the financial system as banks were hit with billions of dollars of losses on mortgages and mortgage-backed securities.

The federal government created a $700 billion rescue fund for the financial system last October but so far that effort has shown only modest results in terms of getting banks to resume more normal lending patterns.

Households have also been battered by the recession that began in December 2006 and is already the longest in a quarter-century. That dowturn has sent unemployment soaring to a 25-year high of 8.1 percent in February with 4.4 million jobs lost since the downturn began.

The Federal Reserve began keeping quarterly records on net worth in 1951.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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