WASHINGTON -- Preliminary data show earnings at the nation's credit unions increased by 20% and capital by 11% during the first half of 1992, the industry's top regulator said Wednesday.

"These are very healthy figures, indicating that credit unions are doing very well indeed," said Roger Jepsen, chairman of the National Credit Union Administration.

Credit unions earned $769 million in the first half of 1991, and $1.8 billion for the full year.

Not Immune to Recession

But Mr. Jepsen also acknowledged in testimony to the Senate Banking Committee that the industry had taken its share of hits during recession, particularly in New England and in real estate lending. Hid agency "has special terms in place on the West Coast" looking for problems that may crop up as that region works its way out of the downturn.

Nationwide, he added, "we have been in every credit union and do not find any major surprises."

However, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle raised several cautionary flags during the hearing, expressing particular concern over the industry's rapid growth.

"Rapid growth by federally insured depository institutions has often been a cause of problems in the past and we should be sure that does not happen here," Sen Riegle said.

The Michigan Democrat also expressed concern about the increased investments in derivative instruments, such as futures and interest rate swaps, by U.S. Central Credit Union, the industry's "central bank."

Mr. Jepsen said the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency assisted NCUA in examining Central's portfolio. Derivatives, he said are used primarily for hedging.

Sen. Riegle also questioned whether Congress should require privately insured thrifts to move into the federally sponsored Credit Union Share Insurance Fund. About 800 of the more than 13,000 credit unions are not federally insured, Mr. Jepsen said.

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