Late payments of credit card bills in the third quarter edged up from the previous quarter but were still down from the same period last year, according to the American Bankers Association's bulletin on consumer loan delinquencies.

The percentage of credit card bills 30 days or more overdue increased to 3.21%, from 2.99% in the previous quarter. The figure was 3.35% in the third quarter of last year.

Economists say the quarter-over-quarter increase confirms flagging consumer confidence and high debt burdens and is a further testament to a cooling U.S. economy.

Credit card delinquencies in terms of dollars outstanding showed a parallel increase, representing 3.93% of total card debt, up from 3.54% in the second quarter and 4.25% one year ago.

ABA chief economist James Chessen said the numbers suggest a "pinch" on American households but cautioned: "Bank card numbers are up a little, but it's still below the average of the last two years and even the last five years. You have to be careful not to interpret this as a sign of gloom and doom for the coming quarter."

Consumer delinquency rose in other lending categories as well. In the ABA's composite ratio of eight types of closed-end installment loans, 2.32% of accounts were delinquent, up from 2.30% in the second quarter and 2.14% in the third quarter of last year. The percentage of dollars delinquent was 1.80%, up from 1.73% in the second quarter but still a fraction below 1.81% from the third quarter last year.

Joel J. Houck, an analyst at A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis, said the ABA figures were consistent with recent reports of rising delinquencies and bankruptcy filings. "What you have now is confirmation that the trend continues," he said. "The more salient issue is whether it's going to accelerate or become manageable."

Mr. Chessen said the healthy state of the credit industry should ensure adequate damage control.

"Banks have already been tightening their underwriting standards, so they recognize there's a problem," he said. "If it gets worse, they will continue ever-so-slightly to tighten that spigot of credit, and so should be able to handle a slowing economy."

Mr. Houck, who since October has maintained conservative ratings on card issuers like MBNA Corp. and Providian Financial Corp., said the two gauges to watch are unemployment and consumer confidence.

"They work in tandem," he said. "If consumer confidence continues to wane and unemployment ticks up, you'll see reductions in consumer spending, and more people filing for bankruptcy. In that situation, you can move from a soft to a hard landing very quickly."

Mr. Chessen said an ebbing of consumer confidence, which he linked to jitters about job losses and debt burden, did not necessarily mean bad news for the economy. "Consumers are rethinking how much debt they can take on, and how much spending they can afford," he said. "While that may not make retailers happy, it probably benefits the economy in the long term."

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