An extensive Federal Reserve Board study has yielded new evidence of the gains nonbanks are making against traditional consumer lending institutions.

The survey of consumer finances, conducted every three years, showed finance and other loan companies to be growing faster than any other category of consumer debtholders.

They held 21% of outstandings in 1995, according to data in the January Federal Reserve Bulletin, published this week. That share was up from 13.5% in 1992 and 9.6% in 1989, the two previous times the central bank commissioned its surveys of approximately 4,000 U.S. households.

Commercial banks and credit unions have also increased their consumer debt shares steadily, though marginally relative to the finance companies. Banks led the market at 35.1% in 1995, up from 33.2% and 29.4%. Credit unions, at 4.2%, were up from 4% and 3.3%.

As the finance company total more than doubled in six years, savings and loans and savings banks lost more than half the 23.4% they had in 1989, before their industry crisis took its toll.

"The finance companies are picking up the slack left from the savings and loans," said Arthur B. Kennickell, a Fed economist and co-author of the study. "It is part of the continuing restructuring of the industry."

The data may exaggerate the rise of the nonbank lenders, said American Bankers Association chief economist James Chessen. Bank activity may show up in multiple areas because "a holding company may own a mortgage company, a finance company, or a thrift," he said.

But the Federal Reserve Bulletin pointed out that the "surge in lending by finance companies ... was particularly strong from 1992 to 1995."

Among other findings:

*Consumers' debt as a proportion of income was the same in 1995 as in 1989.

* Mortgage debt rose faster than other forms of borrowing.

*Fewer families saved money in 1995, and retirement accounts and stocks were the most popular investment vehicles.

*The proportion with bank accounts increased since 1989, indicating a decline in the "unbanked" population.

*Credit and store cards accounted for 3.7% of 1995 debt, up from 3% in 1992 and 2.3% in 1995, but most other miscellaneous lender types - including real estate, individuals, brokerages, and government - declined since 1992.

The 1995 survey of 4,299 families was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which did the same in 1992. The 1989 study was done by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

The reports are regarded in academic and policy circles as a benchmark of U.S. consumers' financial status. James M. Boterba, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called the Fed surveys "the premiere source of information on household portfolios and household net worth."

The study found that the proportion of debt devoted to financing a home rose to 65% in 1995 from 53% in 1989.

Whites were still more likely than minorities to have mortgages in 1995 - 43.5% compared to 32.7%. But whites and minorities were equally likely to have credit cards and installment loans.

"This is saying there is inequality out there," said John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "It shows there is a market out there that remains to be tapped into by private financial institutions in the nonwhite community for mortgages."

Professional and managerial employees were the most likely to have debt - 63% having mortgages and 57% credit cards. Technical and clerical workers were next, followed by production workers and machine operators.

Of mortgageholders, one in 10 had refinanced home loans during the life of the mortgage. More than 40% used the proceeds to make home repairs, 20% paid off other debts, and 12% invested the windfall.

The study called into question the often-stated assumption that consumers are overextended. The overall ratio of debt to family income dipped slightly from 1992 to 1995. Families with less than $10,000 in annual income or led by someone younger than 35 years old had the highest debt burdens. These went down with higher earnings and older age.

The bulletin article said increases in debt were offset by rising family income and net worth, although real incomes in 1995 were still slightly below 1989's level.

On the investment side, the study found that consumers were investing more in financial assets - such as stocks and bonds - rather than in vehicles, real estate, and small businesses.

Banks, however, benefited little from this trend. Investments held in checking, savings accounts, and certificates of deposit fell to 19% of all savings in 1995, a one-third drop from 1989.

"This is telling us that the baby boomers are starting to focus on retirement and they need the best returns because they are a little behind," said Paul C. Taylor, senior economist at America's Community Bankers. "Our members are moving quickly to offer expanded mutual fund and investment products to serve these needs."

The proportion of families that save money also dipped slightly in 1995, to 55%. Consumers said the primary reason to save was to keep cash on hand for future purchases or emergencies. But retirement, education, and home purchase were increasingly important.

Retirement accounts were the most popular investment vehicle, holding a quarter of family savings. Stocks accounted for 18%. Money market, checking, and life insurance policies rounded out the list of the top five investment options; certificates of deposit were at only 5% of family savings.

A record 85% of families were found to have checking accounts, up from 83.5% in 1992 and 81.1% in 1989. Nearly half of these unbanked earn less than $10,000 a year, and most are minorities.

The prospect for bringing holdouts into the fold appears bleak. In the survey, 22.8% said the primary reason they lack a checking account is because they dislike banks. Another 20% said they did not have enough money to open an account and 27% said they would not write enough checks to make it worthwhile.

Janice C. Shields, consumer research director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said she is not surprised by the negative perception because of inner-city branch closings and other service cutbacks.

"Banks should be targeting low-income neighborhoods," she said. "Banks that have done that have found a big deposit base."

Mr. Chessen at ABA said banks must reverse this negative image. "Banks offer low-cost checking accounts that meet the needs of a vast majority of customers," he said. "It is incumbent upon the industry to get that information out there."

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