Late payments of credit card bills continued to rise in the fourth quarter, leading some industry economists to conclude that the consumer credit picture, though still positive relative to recent years, is turning gloomier.

"This pattern is pretty broad-based. It shows a stronger trend than we had suspected in the last few quarters. By now there's been several quarters of this," said James Chessen, chief economist for the American Bankers Association.

Credit card accounts showing payments 30 days late grew to 3.34% of all accounts, up from 3.21% in the third quarter and 3.22% in the fourth quarter of 1999. The volume of dollars delinquent also rose, to 4.25% of total card debt, up from 3.93% in the third quarter, but still less than the 4.28% of a year earlier.

Fourth-quarter card delinquencies were the highest of the year but still fairly low in the context of the past five years. The rate was the same as in the fourth quarter of 1995, and the dollar-delinquency level is the lowest fourth-quarter figure since 1994. "We certainly don't want to make this seem more dramatic than it is," Mr. Chessen said.

Joel J. Houck, an analyst at A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. who covers credit card companies, said the ABA's figures match his firm's findings. The factor to watch, he said, is a parallel rise in losses. "Since the end of 2000, we've continued to see increases in delinquencies, and now we're seeing the loss rates follow through, which we didn't see last year," he said.

Reiterating his "reduce" rating Thursday on the second-largest credit card issuer, MBNA Corp., Mr. Houck cited concerns about increases in personal bankruptcy filings, consumer debt burden, and unemployment. "At this point, I don't really see this as a short-lived phenomenon. It's been a year, and it's likely to go into 2002," he said.

Delinquencies grew in other areas as well. Mr. Chessen said the number of late payments rose in all lending categories, except property improvement loans. The ABA's composite ratio of delinquent closed-end installment loans, including personal and auto, was 2.4% of all accounts, continuing an upward trend from 2.32% in the third quarter and 2.27% in the fourth quarter of 1999. The percentage of dollars delinquent was 2.18%, up from 1.80% in the third quarter and 1.98% a year earlier. The composite index was at its highest point in three years.

"Usually, you'll have some categories going up and some going down. When all the categories are up, that's a strong indicator that consumers are feeling a pinch," Mr. Chessen said.

Though the numbers do seem symptomatic of a cooling economy, he added, conservative lending standards by banks and Federal Reserve interest rate reductions should mitigate the discomfort.

"Every experienced driver knows how to slow down when the road gets rough," he said. "Banks adjust their approach to consumer lending. Consumers are more cautious about spending and borrowing. It doesn't mean you stop driving; it just means you're more careful."

But Mr. Houck was lukewarm about these measures. "Lower interest rates are having a marginal-to-positive effect on consumer debt burdens, but it's not substantial," he said. New bankruptcy legislation, which would absolve fewer debtors, would not prove a cure-all either. "It could change things, but my guess is that we don't see much of a drop-off. The legislation forces people who can repay to repay, but those who can't are going to keep filing," he said.

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