The thrift industry's credit card delinquencies are concentrated in a handful of institutions, according to a report by Veribanc Inc.

The research organization has found the same to be true among commercial banks, where delinquency problems in recent reporting periods have been most prevalent among a relatively small number of card-issuing specialists.

Among savings institutions, five were responsible for 68.6% of all seriously delinquent credit card debt-defined as balances more than 90 days past due. At those five issuers, the average serious delinquency rate was 2.9%.

For thrifts as a whole, 1.67% of outstanding credit card debts were seriously overdue.

"I am not surprised by the numbers," said Warren G. Heller, research director of Veribanc. "We are seeing the same kind of tracking that we saw for commercial banks."

The five biggest thrift debtholders were Household Bank FSB, Wood Dale, Ill.; Chevy Chase Bank FSB, McLean, Va.; Capital One FSB, Falls Church, Va.; Avondale FSB, Chicago; and Citibank FSB, San Francisco. The five also held 41.2% of the total credit card debt outstanding, Veribanc said.

The data are based on call report information for 1,301 savings institutions. Mr. Heller said delinquency information has never before been available for thrifts.

Mr. Heller said he was particularly surprised to see that a small number of them are responsible for the bulk of industry problems. The top five contributors to chargeoffs shouldered a heavier load than their top five bank counterparts, he said.

One reason, Mr. Heller said, was that there are many fewer thrifts than banks that command a very large market share.

Credit unions do not report delinquencies and chargeoffs at a more detailed level than personal loans, but recent data show that high levels of bankruptcies exhibited an uptick well above industry averages.

Eighty-nine thousand members of large credit unions-those with more than $50 million in assets-filed for bankruptcy in the first quarter, versus only 33,000 a year earlier, according to a national survey conducted by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

"This is an exceedingly surprising result," Mr. Heller said. "It may be that it's a statistical anomaly, or it may be pointing to something going on with credit quality in the credit unions."

Sung Won Sohn, senior vice president and chief economist at Norwest Corp., said the issue was "credit discipline."

"Large commercial banks devote a considerable amount of resources to grant and monitor credit," Mr. Sohn said.

Jeff Olsen, collections manager at U.S. Federal Credit Union in Bloomington, Minn., said his institution has seen a 10% to 20% rise in bankruptcies for the first quarter of 1997 compared with the same period last year.

"Lenders are better off if they can lend on a secured basis rather than an unsecured basis," Mr. Olsen said. "But it is very difficult for any bank, savings bank, or credit union to survive in today's competitive world without lending on an unsecured basis."

Because credit unions primarily make consumer loans, deterioration in those loans may have left them more exposed, Mr. Sohn said.

The Veribanc report said the March rate of serious delinquencies in consumer loans at large credit unions was about one seventh higher than a year earlier.

The problem, Mr. Olsen said, is that "it is in vogue to use bankruptcy as a first resort than as the last resort."

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