Consumer loan delinquencies declined in the first quarter in nearly every lending category except credit cards, according to the American Bankers Association.

Lower delinquency rates in home equity, direct auto, and some other categories brought the composite ratio of late payments on consumer credit accounts down to 2.36%, from 2.43% in the fourth quarter. The ABA tracks payments that are at least 30 days late.

Late credit card payments rose slightly, to 3.11% from 3.04%. But that was still significantly lower than in last year's first quarter, when the ratio was 3.51%.

Card delinquencies reached an all-time high of 3.72% in the fourth quarter of 1996, according to the ABA.

The survey, which the ABA conducts every quarter, "showed pretty strong across-the-board improvement in delinquencies," said James Chessen, the association's chief economist. "I thought that was good news."

The small rise in bank card delinquencies "doesn't bother me at all," Mr. Chessen said. The figures showed "such a strong decline in the fourth quarter that it would not be unusual to see a small bounce back."

Economists said they saw several signs that consumer credit problems are ebbing. Personal income grew 6.1% in the first quarter, according to the Federal Reserve, while the economy grew 4.8%. Banks held $205.3 billion of credit card loans in April, the Fed reported, somewhat less than the $209.3 billion they held a year earlier.

Economists also saw promise in the bankruptcy reform bill passed last week by the House, saying it could one day translate into more consumers paying off personal debts. The legislation would restrict debtors' access to Chapter 7 filings-which erase personal debts-and steer people toward Chapter 13 filings, which compel consumers to devise repayment schedules.

"Many factors combined to stem the credit quality deterioration that peaked a year ago," said Michael R. Dean, a director at Fitch Investors Service LP.

Mr. Dean, whose company tracks serious delinquencies among securitized credit card portfolios, said 60-day-late payments have dropped every month since February. He said he believes "recent improved delinquency trends will help drive chargeoffs lower in the coming months."

But the ABA found both the number and dollar amount of delinquent card loans had increased. Total delinquent dollars outstanding were $5.42 billion in the first quarter, versus $5.38 billion in the fourth quarter.

Home equity loans told a very different story. Delinquencies dropped to 1.30% in the first quarter, from 1.49% in the fourth quarter, the ABA found.

What was most striking about that decline, Mr. Chessen said, was that the total amount of home equity lines of credit held by banks fell during the same period, to $96.8 billion from $98.1 billion.

"That's a pretty strong change," Mr. Chessen said. "It reflects how strong the economy is, how home prices have increased, and how people are beginning to take advantage of refinancing."

In other loan categories the ABA tracks, delinquencies among direct auto loans declined to 2.06%, from 2.29% in the fourth quarter. Indirect auto loan delinquencies rose a bit, to 2.50% from 2.46%.

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