Indicating a long-anticipated downturn in consumer credit quality, the American Bankers Association has reported the first increase in its delinquency index since 1992.

The association's composite index, covering several types of closed-end consumer loans by member banks, showed 1.72% of the accounts at yearend were at least 30 days overdue. The increase - six basis points from the third quarter - followed 10 consecutive quarterly declines.

The jump was more severe in credit card loans, which are not included in the composite index. Their yearend delinquency rate of 2.93% was up from 2.44% in the third quarter and 2.49% at the end of 1993.

But economists, who for months had been expecting some reversals, were not overly concerned about lenders' vulnerability - at least not yet.

"By historic standards the (delinquency) rate is still low," said James Chessen, chief economist of the ABA.

Indeed, the closed-end composite index was up only slightly from a seasonally adjusted 1.66% on Oct. 31 - the lowest in the 20 years in which the ABA has been gathering the statistics.

Over the past 10 years, the composite rate peaked at 2.88% in 1989. The last quarter-to-quarter increase came in the first period of 1992, by 17 basis points to 2.75%.

The composite index is based on the performance of eight different closed-end loan types, including direct and indirect auto, home equity, and personal. Six of the eight categories saw an increase in delinquencies; the exceptions were mobile home and property improvement loans.

Direct and indirect automobile loan delinquencies increased from 1.31% to 1.46% and from 1.57% to 1.65%, respectively. Personal loan delinquencies were up just four basis points, to 2.38%, while home equity lines of credit, an open-end category and not seasonally adjusted, remained stable at 0.67%.

The most unexpected news in the ABA's report was the 49-basis-point, or 20%, rise in credit card delinquencies.

"It is surprising that it jumped so much in one quarter," said Keith D. Coughey, group vice president of PNC National Bank, Wilmington, Del., and chairman of the ABA bank card committee.

The 20% increase in the delinquent-card-loan rate reflects the fact that more people are experiencing difficulty in meeting their obligations. But Mr. Chessen pointed out that as a percentage of dollars outstanding, delinquencies rose only 10%, or 30 basis points, to 3.20% - meaning the amount consumers owe is growing less rapidly.

"A warning light has gone off for issuers that delinquencies will be higher in 1995, signaling a need to review underwriting standards," said Mr. Chessen.

The economist said he sees the overall rise in delinquencies as a consequence of Federal Reserve's tightening of credit. He said he expects this effect will intensify this year, slowing the consumer economy further and increasing pressures on jobs and wages.

The ABA report also looks at the performance of individual states as measured by the total number of accounts. Even the states with the lowest overall delinquency rates - Wisconsin (0.98%), Colorado (1.05%), and Maryland (1.07%) - saw increases in borrowers' lateness. The New England states and California felt the Federal Reserve's pinch more acutely.

Another delinquency study, by contrast, showed a strong improvement in the fourth quarter compared with a year earlier.

Moody's Investors Service Inc., which monitors the late-payment status of credit card accounts in securitized portfolios, said 4.32% were at least 30 days past due in the final quarter of 1994, down from 5.15% a year earlier.

Moody's senior analyst Edward Bankole, who prefers to look at annual rather than quarter-by-quarter changes, could not explain why his indicator is moving in an opposite direction. But he agreed with the ABA's projection that card delinquencies will be up this year.

Mr. Coughey, of the PNC Bank Corp. credit card subsidiary, said he believes the rate will rise gradually.

"The 2.93% is likely to represent a new plateau, but I don't believe we will see such large increases (each successive) quarter," he said.

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