WASHINGTON - When consumers need money, they are turning increasingly to brokerages, finance companies, and mortgage lenders, the Federal Reserve Board said in an in-depth report released Tuesday.

"Reflecting ongoing changes in markets for financial services, the mix of institutions that families used for borrowing shifted markedly" from 1995 through 1998, according to the Fed's latest Survey of Consumer Finances.

Those lenders stole business from banks, thrifts, and credit unions, the Fed said. Every three years the central bank takes a detailed look at the way consumers borrow, save, and repay debt.

At yearend 1998, banks held 32.6% of consumer debt, down from 35.1% in 1995. Taking over the top spot were mortgage lenders, with 35.9% of the market, up from 32.7% in 1995. While still a small portion of the total, the share of the consumer debt market captured by brokerages nearly doubled, to 3.7%, during the three-year period.

Interviews with more than 4,300 families found that average net worth - the difference between a family's gross assets and liabilities - increased 25.7% from 1995 to 1998. The reason was not that families saved more or borrowed less, but that many more had a stake in the soaring stock market.

The Fed said that 48.8% of all families owned stocks, either directly or indirectly through such vehicles as mutual funds, by the end of 1998. That was up from 40.4% in 1995 and 31.6% in 1989.

Holdings of the 19.2% of families owning stocks directly skyrocketed 82.3%, to $17,500, in 1998, the Fed said.

Such increases permitted the family debt-to-assets ratio to dip in the three years to 14.4%. But among families with debts, the median amount owed jumped more than 42% and the ratio of debt payments to income increased more than two percentage points to 17.6%, the Fed said.

Shedding light on the inroads made by mortgage lenders, the Fed said the proportion of families with home-secured debt rose 2.1 percentage points, to 43.1%, from 1995 to 1998. It also noted that home-equity lending expanded: In 1995, 5.1% had a line and 56% were drawing funds; for 1998 those figures were 7% and 63.7%.

The proportion of families carrying a credit card balance fell 3.2 percentage points, to 44.1%, in 1998. The median amount owed was flat at $1,700. Bank-type cards were the most common, held by 67.6% of the families, up from 66.5% in 1995. Among these families, the median total credit limit on all their bank-type cards rose from $8,700 in 1995 to $10,000 in 1998.

The Fed's 29-page report is available at its Web site; final data from the survey will be released in February at www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/oss/oss2/98/scf98 home.html.

Separately Tuesday, the Consumer Federation of America credited lenders for a decline in personal bankruptcies last year - the first annual decline in more than a decade. Filings plummeted a record 112,000, or about 8%, to 1.4 million from a year earlier.

The consumer group praised lenders for tightening credit practices and curtailing direct mail solicitations. "The high rate of default at the peak of the bankruptcy crisis began to impinge on the profitability of lending, and as a result, lenders tightened their underwriting standards," said Lawrence M. Ausubel, a University of Maryland economics professor who prepared the federation's study. "This is the nonlegislative, free-market response that made the crisis abate."

The 11-page study, Personal Bankruptcies Begin Sharp Decline: Millennium Data Update, also praised banks and credit card companies for updating lending formulas to better take the household debt burden into account when predicting default. Borrowers, meanwhile, are also getting savvier, paying off their balances quicker and taking on new credit more cautiously, officials said. For instance, increases in credit card borrowing slowed to between 5% and 6% in each of the last two years, after exceeding 20% in 1995.

Furthermore, consumer response rates to direct mail solicitations have fallen drastically, forcing lenders to scale back mailings to an estimated three billion pieces in 1999, from 3.5 billion in 1998, the study said.

Activists used the results to criticize the bankruptcy reform legislation as unnecessary; the problem is correcting itself, they argue. They blasted the legislation as too harsh on consumers and said it would encourage lenders to extend credit more recklessly again because the law would help them defeat bankruptcy claims.

"The bankruptcy bill will actually lead to more aggressive lending by credit card issuers," especially to college students and other new cardholders apt to borrow beyond their means, said Travis Plunkett, the Consumer Federation of America's legislative director.

His group instead urged Congress to pass legislation that would require consumers to pay off at least 4% of monthly credit card balances.

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