Veribanc Inc. said serious delinquencies on bank credit cards have hit an all-time high.

The bank rating and research firm, which collects data from bank call reports, said 2.13% of credit card outstandings in last year's fourth quarter were 90 or more days overdue, up from 2% in the third quarter and 1.95% in the second.

The 2.13% rate was "a record since this type of data has been collected by regulators, and higher than any of the rates associated with the 1990-91 recession," Veribanc said.

The finding seems to jar with other recent reports painting a brighter picture of consumers' credit health. The American Bankers Association's broader measure of bank card delinquencies-percentage of loan accounts at least 30 days past due-declined in the fourth quarter to 3.04%, the lowest level since 1994.

But the ABA's percentage of loaned dollars delinquent did rise, to 5.38% from 5.31% in the third quarter.

Data on securitized credit card portfolios have indicated a slight decline in chargeoffs, which some analysts saw as a sign of greater stability.

But Veribanc research director Warren Heller said his numbers seemed "pretty definitive." Including securitized debts and those held on bank's balance sheets, serious delinquencies reached $425.8 billion in the fourth quarter, up from $410.6 billion in the third quarter and $398.2 billion in the second quarter.

"Based on the previous quarter, we had taken kind of a rosy view along with everybody else," Mr. Heller said. "The statistical evidence seems to be pointing toward a worsening.

"I think we've got a significant chance of setting a new chargeoff record in the first quarter," when this number typically runs high.

James Chessen, the ABA's chief economist, said that the Wakefield, Mass., company's findings were "not inconsistent" with what the association has reported or with his view that delinquencies may have "turned the corner" and begun to decrease.

"Dollar delinquencies increased slightly in the fourth quarter and still remain higher than we would expect in a strong economy," Mr. Chessen said. "Obviously, that's very troubling to lenders, and it will continue to prompt them to tighten underwriting standards and charge off bad debt, as they have done for the past year and a half."

Mr. Chessen said the ABA's finding that the number of 30-day delinquent accounts had "declined fairly substantially suggests that there are some individuals who are better able to regain control of their finances."

Veribanc's report that 90-day delinquencies were rising showed "there are some individuals who have gotten in way over their heads and it's much harder to get them back into meeting their obligations," Mr. Chessen said.

He said banks are working harder to protect against credit card losses. Though Veribanc found total credit issued against bank cards continues to grow, "if you look at 1997 and take out what has been securitized and sold, banks held less in credit card outstandings at the end of the year than they did at the beginning," Mr. Chessen said.

"They were lowering their exposure, and I think that's fairly important. The securitized market has really grown."

Mr. Heller agreed the delinquency numbers did not necessarily signal widespread problems for the industry. Just 20 card issuers were responsible for $118.9 billion of on-balance-sheet outstandings, 51% of the industry total.

"If you could take 20 organizations in the country and put them somewhere else, then this whole issue would evaporate," Mr. Heller said. "That takes some of the pressure off this whole bankruptcy issue because if a lot of institutions were losing a lot of money because of bankruptcy problems" there would be greater alarm.

The 20 issuers that Mr. Heller identified include banks and companies that issue private-label cards through affiliated banks. Among the 20 are Providian Financial Corp., with a serious-delinquency rate of 2.01%; Household International, 1.96%; and Capital One Financial Corp., 1.64%.

The highest serious-delinquency rate belonged to Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter's Discover portfolio, 4.68%.

Mr. Heller said some issuers are deliberately targeting subprime customers and pricing products to account for high delinquencies and chargeoffs.

"In pure economic terms, this whole credit card delinquency thing is very concentrated," Mr. Heller said. "I'm not sure that the people who are studying it and trying to fix it are paying enough attention to the concentrated aspect."

Analysts at Standard & Poor's have also emphasized that a handful of issuers seem to account for a disproportionate amount of the bad news.

"We're definitely on the side of things improving," said Marc D. Alpert, an analyst at BT Alex. Brown. "Delinquencies may be up year-over-year, but they may have turned the corner quarter-to-quarter."

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland gave supporting evidence, noting in a report this month on economic trends that total consumer debt as a share of disposable personal income remained relatively steady throughout 1997, at around 20.6%. The fraction of income devoted to servicing that debt has stayed at 17% for nearly a year, the report said.

Veribanc also tracks serious delinquency rates for consumer loans other than credit card debt. It found improvement in the family home mortgage category (0.94% in the fourth quarter versus 0.95% in the third). The rate on home equity loans climbed to 0.44% in the fourth quarter from 0.43% in the third, and installment loans rose more sharply, to 0.98% from 0.93%.

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