The nation's largest credit unions enjoyed strong deposit and membership growth in the first quarter despite a membership-limiting Supreme Court ruling and continued verbal attacks from banks.

But slumping automobile sales and paydowns of credit card debt reduced gains in loan volume to the lowest level in two years, according to Callahan & Associates, a Washington consulting firm that compiled the data.

For the quarter ended March 31, deposits at credit unions with more than $50 million of assets-about 12% of all credit unions-grew 4.1%, to $243.3 billion. That's about equal to the gains generated in the same period of 1997 and 1996, when deposits climbed 4.2%.

At the same time, membership in the 1,366 largest credit unions rose to 47.8 million, also a 4.1% jump.

Chip Filson, president of Callahan and Associates, attributed the deposit increase, in part, to yearend bonuses paid by employers. However, he said, membership growth was aided by the ongoing war of words with the banking industry over credit unions' tax-exempt status.

"The bankers' attacks in the last year have served to make customers aware of the opportunities available at credit unions," said Mr. Filson.

For the 12 months ended March 31, deposits in the credit unions with more than $50 million of assets climbed 8%, Callahan reported.

The healthiest growth occurred at State Farm Florida Federal Credit Union in Winter Haven, Fla., where deposits jumped 74%, to $93 million, and at Central State Credit Union in Stockton, Calif., whose deposits grew 38%, to $74.4 million.

The volume of loans increased more modestly, however. In the first quarter, loans rose just 0.3%, compared with 1% the year earlier and an average of 2.6% for each quarter since mid-1996.

Mr. Filson said the first quarter is typically a slow lending period because many people pay down credit card debt early in the year.

In the most recent quarter, moreover, he cited declining automobile sales-car loans were down 2.9%-and a refinancing boom in which many people paid down their older, higher-interest-rate mortgages as the chief reasons for the slower growth.

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