For the first time since 1981, commercial bank's credit card loans shrank last year as recession-weary consumers moved to reduce their debt burdens.

Total card loans outstanding fell by 1.9%, to $136.4 billion, according to American Banker's annual survey of consumer lending. (See table beginning on page 13.)

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Meanwhile, banks' total consumer loans, including mortgages, grew by 3.2%, to $849.3 billion. The growth rate was up from the 2.4% of 1991 but was still meager compared with the double-digit increases of the 1980s, which made the loans the major contributor to bank profitability.

The 1992 data showed mortgage loans grew by a respectable 8.2%, to $390.1 billion, and home equity loans rose 4.3% to $73.3 billion.

But even those growth figures reflected consumer frugality. Bankers report that many u customers were refinancing their homes and using the proceeds to pay down more expensive loans, or using home equity loans -- with their tax-deductible interest -- to replace other forms of borrowing.

"In 1992, the consumer market was just about flat," said Donald W. Grigley, executive vice president at Shawmut National Corp., which sold its credit card business in 1991. The people who are spending money, he said, are generally drawing on lower-cost lines secured by homes.

In any event, the credit card decline was far less severe than in 1981, when an energy crisis and ballooning interest rates caused a collapse in outstandings to $11.45 billion from $29.9 billion.

In the wake of loan-loss debacles in energy and commercial real estate, bankers stepped up their commitment to consumer loans, which they continue to regard as a more manageable business line.

"The attractiveness of consumer lending is in its dispersion of risk within a wide base of customers, demographically and geographically," said David W. Thomas, director of statewide retail banking at Banc One, Texas.

Shift to Consumer Loans

Although the pace was glacial, the banks did continue to shift their weight toward consumer and away from commercial loans. While the aggregate consumer portfolio grew 3.2%, total loans, including commercial, were declining by 1% to $2.03 trillion.

At Dec. 31, consumer loans accounted for 40.63% of total loans held by the top 300 banks, up from 38.71% a year earlier.

The fastest-growing consumer portfolio, at Norwest Corp.'s lead bank in Minneapolis, did not reflect a pure increase in loan demand.

Norwest leapt to 10th place in the rankings, from 38th, as its portfolio bulged by 192% to $6.9 billion.

"The lion's share of the growth is in one-to-four family adjustable-rate mortgages," said Charles D. White, Norwest banking group treasurer.

Mr. White also said that some of the growth in Norwest's portfolio in Minnesota and at a credit card unit in Iowa came about because credit card and automobile loans that were sold as securing a few years ago are maturing and returning to the balance sheets.

Consolidation in Lending

Similarly, at Bank One, Texas, the 187% growth in the home equity portfolio represented purchases of loans from out-of-state lenders, not new lending by the bank. Mr. Thomas pointed out that home-equity lending is illegal in Texas.

The American Banker survey, based on data from regulatory reports, also showed continued consolidation in the bank consumer.

Growth of consumer loans at the top 300 banks, at 6.4%, was double that of the industry at large. Consumer lending rose even faster - 7.26% - at the top 100 consumer-lending banks.

BankAmerica Corp.'s main unit in San Francisco again topped the ranking, widening its lead over No. 2 Citibank of New York, partly as a result of its merger of Security Pacific Corp.

Bank of America held $48.8 million of consumer loans, up from $36.2 billion a year earlier, while Citicorp's flagship grew less than 1%, to $28.9 billion.

Chemical Banking Corp.'s lead unit in New York jumped to third place, from eighth. A spokesman said the company's merger with Manufacturers Hanover Corp. was not a factor.

About $2 billion of the growth represented a growing mortgage business, he said, and a significant portion of the remaining increase was due to moving a credit card operation to New York from Delaware.

Bright Side

Although bankers said the economy has been unfavorable for new-loan growth, James G. Jones, group executive vice president and director of consumer loans at Bank America, said there could be a bright side.

"Those who had opportunity to refinance kept their houses in order" and are now even more creditworthy, he said.

Mr. Jones also noted that the problems of less creditworthy customers worsened, because they could not qualify to refinance their debt.

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