Consumer loan delinquencies held fairly steady in the second quarter except for credit cards, which went up for the second period in a row, the American Bankers Association said Wednesday.

The ABA's latest report on delinquency rates-percentages of loans at least 30 days past due-showed declines in automobile, home equity, and other secured categories. The composite ratio for eight types of closed-end loans dropped to 2.35%, from 2.36% at the end of the first quarter.

As a percentage of outstanding dollars delinquent, the composite second- quarter index was 1.83%, down from 1.89% in the first quarter.

Delinquencies among home equity loans dropped 8 basis points from the first quarter, to 1.22% of accounts, the lowest level since 1995.

The midyear reading for credit card accounts, 3.28%, was up from 3.11% on March 31 but down from 3.69% in the second quarter last year. The record high was 3.72% in the fourth quarter of 1996.

There was a silver lining in the card results: The percentage of dollars delinquent fell to 4.57% of outstanding loans, from 5.42% in the first quarter.

"The news overall is positive," said James Chessen, the ABA's chief economist. "The fact we have seen the dollars-delinquent decline says the risk to banks is less that it was."

The general improvement in delinquency numbers indicates that banks have tightened underwriting standards and reduced risk exposure since rates were peaking a year and a half ago, Mr. Chessen said.

Mr. Chessen said securitization of credit card portfolios-accounting for more than 50% of all balances-has shifted much of the card risk from banks to the investment community.

Chargeoffs within credit card asset-backed securities hit an 18-month low in July of 6.3%, according to Fitch ICBA Inc. of New York. Another ratings agency, Moody's Investors Services, placed second quarter chargeoffs at a three-year low.

Given the low chargeoff rates and the strength of the economy, some economists said they expected the ABA's quarterly survey to show better results. Don Hilber, corporate economist at Norwest Corp. of Minneapolis, said he was "surprised the composite figure had not dropped more."

Also potentially ominous was that consumer installment credit rose to 21% of disposable income in the second quarter, after holding at 20.9% for two years.

"When you have an economic downturn and people increase borrowing, debt service burdens will start to turn up again," said Brian A. Nottage, senior economist at Regional Financial Associates of West Chester, Pa. He said the industry could be in for "a record deterioration" of delinquency numbers.

Mr. Chessen said banks are well situated. If they "were to write off every noncurrent loan, they would still have $26 billion in reserves, in addition to the $430 billion in capital," he said.

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