Mortgage delinquencies rose in the fourth quarter after three quarters of declines, and industry observers said they do not expect the rates to decrease anytime soon.

According to a survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, delinquencies climbed 21 basis points in the quarter, to a seasonally adjusted 4.37%. Lenders surveyed hold about a third of the nation's residential mortgages.

Ron J. McCord, president of the MBA, said rates were likely to remain near current levels for the next few quarters.

"The rising growth in consumer debt, coupled with a moderating economy, could keep mortgage delinquencies from improving in the near future," Mr. McCord said.

Other lenders and economists said they agreed that delinquencies were not likely to fall for awhile. But they were quick to play down the impact of credit card delinquencies on mortgage payments.

"The mortgage is the last thing people are going to let go," said Terrance G. Hodel, chief operating officer of North American Mortgage Co., Santa Rosa, Calif. "They've got investments in the house, and they live there."

And Mark Zandi, chief economist of Regional Financial Associates, West Chester, Pa., said he does not expect any significant increases in delinquencies this year since the economy has remained strong. He added that there generally has been appreciation in home prices and unemployment rates have remained low.

Delinquencies on conventional loans rose 14 basis points to 2.81%. Government-loan delinquencies were also up; the rate for VA loans increased 10 basis points to 6.78%, and the rate for FHA loans was 8.06%, a rise of 23 basis points.

Delinquencies rose in three out of four regions. The West's delinquency rate increased the most, 29 basis points, to 3.69%. The Northeast region declined 1 basis point to 4.23%. The rate in all four regions was lower than at the end of 1995.

Mr. Zandi said gains in home prices in the New York and Boston metropolitan areas were a main reason for the Northeast's year-to-year decline in delinquencies.

Although delinquency rates rose overall, observers were pleased that the most serious category-90 days or more past due -was not abig problem.

Loans 30 days past due increased 12 basis points. Loans 90 days or more past due increased only 3 basis pointsoverall; the 90-day-plus rate for FHA loans actually fell, by 3 basis points.

Dan Feshbach, president and chief executive officer of Mortgage Insurance Corp., a San Francisco-based firm that tracks loan performance, said its survey showed a similar pattern.

Overall delinquencies in MIC's survey increased even more than in the MBA's, from 3.67% at the end of September to 4.05% at yearend. And though 30-day delinquency was up 25 basis points,serious delinquencies rose only 9.

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