Consumer loan delinquencies stabilized in the third quarter but late credit-card payments increased slightly, the American Bankers Association reported Wednesday.

A survey by the group found that 2.74% of consumer loans were past due at Sept. 30, virtually unchanged from 2.73% in the previous quarter.

The rate -- based on seven types of closed-end installment loans at commercial banks - had been steadily rising since late last year. A delinquent loan is defined as one at least 30 days past due.

Though some bankers were guardedly optimistic about the report, they said it does not tell the whole story.

"The problem hasn't been delinquency; it's been loss," said William McDonald 3d, vice chairman of National City Bank in Cleveland. "The real problem has been increased losses due to bankruptcies."

Paid-Up Until Last Minute

Strapped consumers, he explained, often remain up-to-date on loans until the moment they declare bankruptcy. Creditors must then write off loans that were never classified delinquent.

"Given the fact that we have seen huge increases in bankruptcies, we are going to see increased loss," Mr. McDonald said.

The banking trade group offered another reason for caution. In another report issued Wednesday, it said that credit card delinquencies increased slightly.

At the end of the third quarter, past-due credit card balances stood at 4.54%, up from 4.48% three months earlier. The uptick disheartened some bankers, since card delinquencies had declined in the second quarter for the first time since the recession began in mid-1990.

Consumers' Perspective

Based on total number of accounts, rather than dollar volume, delinquencies fell to 3.19% in the third quarter, from 3.23%.

"As far as the consumer is concerned, we are still clearly in a recession," said Richard Vague, president of First USA, a large credit card lender in Dallas. "We don't necessarily see [delinquencies] becoming exacerbated, but we don't see an improvement, either."

The trade group's composite loan figure includes indirect and direct auto loans, personal loans, closed-end home equity loans, home improvement loans, and loans for recreational vehicles and mobile homes. Consumer installment debt totaled $732.2 billion at the end of September, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

After spiking markedly in the second quarter, the delinquency rate for "indirect" auto loans, which are originated through auto dealers, remained stable at 2.87%. But delinquent auto loans made directly by banks to consumers rose in the third quarter to 2.43% of the total, from 2.25%.

Regional Variations

Delinquency rates on installment loans varied markedly by region. Three New England states - Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut - had the highest levels. Rhode Island was the leader, with 5.85% of such loans overdue.

States boasting the lowest delinquency rates were: Wyoming, with 1.22%; Washington, with 1.34%; and Colorado, with 1.44%.

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