Consumers may have hit the wall in the amount of debt they can handle - at least when it comes to plastic.

The American Bankers Association reported Tuesday that 3.53% of credit card accounts were delinquent at the end of the first quarter - a 15-year high. As a percentage of dollars outstanding, delinquencies stood at 4.62% on March 31, 1996, a near-high for the last 10 years.

Also on Tuesday, Moody's Investors Service Inc. said the level of securitized credit card loans at least one month past due jumped in March - also, coincidentally, to 4.62%, compared with 4.25% a year earlier.

The rise in delinquencies, which foreshadow actual losses, comes at a time of rapid expansion in the bank card business. Indeed, the industry's stellar growth may have helped to mask a long simmering delinquency problem, some bankers say, as it enabled overstrapped consumers to use one card account to keep current on their others.

"We've stopped the music, and there might not be enough chairs," said Cynthia A. Graham, president, Barnett Card Services, Jacksonville, Fla.

Overall, the ABA's seasonally adjusted, composite delinquency index, which tracks payments that are 30 days or more overdue on eight types of closed-end loans, climbed to 2.14% in the first quarter. That's a two- basis-point rise from the previous quarter and a 32-point hike from March 1995.

But in the separate bank card category, delinquencies as a percent of accounts outstanding rose for the sixth consecutive quarter. The only time they were higher was in the fourth quarter of 1981, when 3.58% of card loans outstanding were delinquent.

And the last time card delinquencies as a percent of dollars outstanding was in the first quarter of 1986, when they hit an all-time record of 4.92%.

"Consumer debt levels are surpassing those seen in the late '80s, just before the last recession," said James Chessen, the ABA's chief economist. "This latest rise in credit card delinquencies is a signal that more consumers are hitting their debt limits."

Households are carrying an average $4,000 credit card debt, noted Lehman Brothers senior economist David Kelly, up 17% from last year.

The delinquency reports come just days after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reported that banks pulled in profits of $12 billion during the first quarter.

FDIC chairman Ricki Helfer noted that commercial banks held $203 billion in card loans in the quarter, but net chargeoffs in those loans jumped 63% from the first quarter of 1995, to $2.2 billion. A record 253,000 people filed for bankruptcy during the quarter.

Mr. Chessen noted that banks have reduced their outstanding credit by $11 billion since the beginning of the year.

Moody's also said that card issuers have tightened underwriting standards and strengthened collection efforts. The rating agency said it expects continued "marginal credit deterioration" for the remainder of the year.

Revolving credit, as tracked by the association, jumped 47 basis points in the first quarter, to 3.61%. This category tracks overdraft protection for checking accounts and lines of credit not accessed by credit card.

Meanwhile, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America said it will release its quarterly delinquency report on Thursday. Economists expect those numbers to rise from the fourth quarter, when 4.25% of home loans were past due.

Gary Schlossberg, senior economist for Wells Fargo, said that the notion that these delinquency rates indicates households are "wildly overextended may be an exaggeration."

Slowing credit card loan growth and seasoning of past loans contributed to the rise in card delinquencies, he said.

The delinquency numbers tell us less about the economy, said Mr. Kelly, the economist, and more about banks' expanding their credit card portfolios. "There are a large number of households in the middle being stretched by taking on more debt than they can handle," Mr. Kelly said.

Behavioral Analysis Inc., a Tarrytown, N.Y. research firm that tracks mailings, found that a record 2.7 billion credit card offers hit the mail last year, while response rates dropped to a record low. Applications for new credit cards have nearly doubled since 1992, the firm found.

Beverly Wells, president of Wachovia Bank Card Services, Atlanta, said some issuers may have not had the sophistication to monitor the credit situation after the cards were delivered. "We've hurt ourselves a little," she said of the industry, noting that Wachovia has done so and had four months of lower delinquency rates.

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