Loan officers at 75% of large banks surveyed by the Federal Reserve said consumer delinquency rates rose during the past six months.
Releasing the results Wednesday, the Fed said these same banks don't expect their delinquency problems to subside during the coming year. Half the bankers said they expect higher delinquency rates; 32% said they expect no change.
Finally, more than one-third of the loan officers said the recent run-up in consumer loan delinquencies had caught them by surprise.
The data come from the Fed's survey of senior loan officers, which is sent periodically to 56 banks that control more than one-third of all insured deposits.
The survey came out just a week after Banc One Corp. and Chase Manhattan Corp. reported 100-basis-point increases in chargeoff rates in some of their credit card trusts. It also follows a prediction by the credit card industry that personal bankruptcies would top 1 million this year.
Economists said bankers shouldn't panic. "It is a warning sign, but it is not a sign of crisis," said Joel L. Naroff, chief economist at First Union National Bank. Delinquency rates are still not high by historical standards, he said.
Mr. Naroff attributed much of the increase to this spring's interest rate increases, which boosted many consumers' monthly loan payments.
James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association, said bankers already have begun to react to higher delinquency rates. He said institutions are reducing their consumer portfolios and selling some loans to the secondary market.
"Banks are at the point where they feel they have enough consumer credit on the books and they are leery of adding more," he said. "They will be more cautious for the rest of the year."
Still, demand for home mortgages rose at 36% of the institutions surveyed and for consumer installment credit, at 28% of the banks. At the same time, 4% of lenders tightened underwriting standards for mortgages, and 26% toughened them for credit cards.
Overall, the loan officers said they either have firmed up credit standards or left them unchanged for commercial and industrial loans. Yet 30% said demand for business loans was "moderately" stronger.
Nearly 11% of banks tightened commercial real estate loan standards. And 20% said demand for this type of credit was moderately stronger.
The Fed also surveyed the U.S. operations of 22 foreign banks, which control one-quarter of foreign bank assets here. One-third of the foreign banks said demand for commercial real estate loans had grown, and 19% reported greater demand for commercial and industrial loans. Only 4.5% of the foreign banks tightened credit standards.