Bank regulators in the field have turned more optimistic about U.S. commercial real estate, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Tuesday.

A majority of the 500 examiners and liquidators interviewed for the FDIC's quarterly real estate survey said conditions were stable or improving.

This was reflected in the FDIC's national index of commercial real estate, which jumped to 58 in the three months ended in April, from 46 in the preceding quarter. Values above 50 indicate that a majority of examiners see improvement.

Thirty-one percent of the examiners noted improvement in the commercial real estate sector, while 13% said conditions had deteriorated.

The findings contrasted markedly with the corresponding period a year ago, when 23% reported improvement and almost 30% reported a decline.

The latest report marked the first time in the five quarters the FDIC has conducted the survey that commercial real estate bulls have outnumbered bears, said William R. Rogers, FDIC director of statistics.

Some analysts greeted the findings skeptically. But the survey indicates that the market, though beset by negative news about Olympia & York Developments Ltd. and other property companies, is moving in the right direction. This would be good news for lenders struggling to shed billions of dollars worth of office buildings, hotels, and shopping centers.

People in the Know

"This is an opinion survey," said James Freund, chief of financial and industry analysis of the FDIC. "But the people whom we choose are people who whom we choose are people who are in fairly constant contact with real estate transactions."

In addition, the FDIC reported continued improvement in residential real estate markets. Sixty-eight percent of the examiners noted improvement, while 6% said conditions worsened. This was also the most optimistic findind since the survey began.

The FDIC said its composite index of the overall health of real estate markets, including residential properties, jumped to a record 72 in the latest quarter, eclipsing the previous high of 64 set in the quarter that ended in July 1991.

Good News on Delinquencies

Separately, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America said Tuesday that delinquencies on home mortgages declined in the first three months of the year, the third straight quarterly drop.

And, in another upbeat report, the Commerce Department said sales of new single-family homes rose 1.3% in April, rebounding from March when the indicator showed its biggest drop in in more than a decade.

The FDIC said commercial real estate improved in all regions. Assessments improved most in the Northeast, where only 14% noted deterioration. A year ago, 48% saw deterioration in that region.

Commercial Prices Still Low

To be sure, 85% of the examiners said their markets still have oversupplies of commercial property. Fewer than 10% in any region noted increases in commercial real estate prices.

But the report represents a shift in attitude among regulators, whom banks and developers have blamed for worsening markets by discouraging banks from making new loans.

The notion that a full-fledged commercial real estate recovery is in progress was dismissed as "wishful thinking" by skeptics, who predict several more years of agony for banks.

"It's an election year," said Therese E. Byrne, vice president at Salomon Brothers Inc.

She suggested it is in the government's interest to present an upbeat picture of economic conditions. Nevertheless, she acknowledged, "There are some bright spots out there."

Fire Sales

Ms. Byrne said the findings were subjective. She argued that fire sales, in which a bank finances the buyer and takes a participation in future profits, do not signal an improvement. Rather, they show a market that is scraping along the bottom.

"From a liquidator's point of view, maybe they [believe the banks] have come to terms with their bad loans," she said. "But I don't see the liquidity in the market."

In its report, the Mortgage Bankers Association said the number of mortgages past due by at least 30 days fell to 4.52% of loans serviced from 4.78% in the fourth quarter of last year. The first-quarter rate was the lowest since mid-1990.

Most of the improvement, however, was among loans that were overdue by only 30 to 59 days. The portion of conventional loans delinquent by 90 days or more was unchanged from the fourth quarter of last year, at 0.47%.

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