WASHINGTON - The brute force of the recession earlier this year turned back the clock on Americans' personal wealth to 2004 and wiped out a staggering $1.3 trillion as home values shrank and investments withered.

Net worth, or the value of assets such as homes, checking accounts and investments minus debts like mortgages and credit cards, declined 2.6 percent in the first three months of the year, the Federal Reserve said yesterday.

Those months were some of the worst of the recession so far for job losses, and the stock market sank to its lowest point of the year in March. Since then, some signs suggest the economy is stabilizing.

Even if things improve, such a dramatic evaporation of wealth will probably make Americans more thrifty down the road, said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Economy.com.

"The bulk of consumers alive today have not experienced declines in wealth like this," Hoyt said. "They are already turning thrifty, and it will stay that way beyond the short term. This has been a significant learning experience." *