Flying in the face of accusations by consumer groups, new research concludes that bank underwriting criteria are not to blame for high levels of credit card delinquency.

The study, from Trans Union Corp. and the Credit Research Center at Georgetown University in Washington, says that delinquency rates could be much higher under other circumstances.

"The argument that credit card companies have relaxed standards is greatly exaggerated," said Gregory Elliehausen, a former Federal Reserve Board economist who is affiliated with the industry-supported Credit Research Center. He edits a newsletter, Monthly Statements, that the research center and the Chicago-based credit bureau have begun to publish jointly.

The organizations say that their work - which examined credit trends from 1992 through the second quarter of 1998-was based on a random sampling from Trans Union's data base of 30 million consumers.

The first issue of Monthly Statements said the increase in available credit and consumers' greater use of it have "not been achieved by a significant lowering of credit standards." Mr. Elliehausen said delinquency rates are "not out of the ordinary," considering past economic cycles.

Bank card delinquency rates are lower than those in other lending sectors, he said. Retailers and other lenders - including finance companies, credit unions, and mail-order businesses-have had far more problems.

The newsletter said that at the high points last year, 3.5% of borrowers with retail credit and 5.2% of those with finance company credit were 60 days or more delinquent.

By contrast, only 2.3% of bank card borrowers were 60 days or more past due in the fourth quarter last year, the peak period.

"The relatively low delinquency rates for bank card borrowers belie the currently popular view that aggressive marketing of bank cards underlies many borrowers' credit problems," Monthly Statements concluded.

Revolving credit, most of which is credit card debt, has increased 70% since 1992, rising to $5,200 per borrower at the second quarter this year, the newsletter said. Available credit lines grew 104% during the period, to $19,400.

Mr. Elliehausen said it looks as if borrowers "are acting prudently."

Card delinquency rates have fallen in recent quarters, "perhaps reflecting tighter credit standards in response to earlier delinquency rates or greater consumer caution," the newsletter said.

Mr. Elliehausen described his conclusions as "preliminary" and said the sponsors are planning "more rigorous research with this data."

The Credit Research Center raised eyebrows this year with work it did for Visa and MasterCard, concluding that many bankruptcy filers could repay some or all of their debts.

Consumer advocates questioned the objectivity of the study, given that Visa and MasterCard are pushing for bankruptcy reform that would give lenders more muscle. The General Accounting Office said the center's findings "must be interpreted with caution."

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