For the first time since 1989, growth rates for credit unions' loan portfolios seem to be higher than for their deposits, according to figures released recently.

The findings, compiled by Callahan & Associates, a Washington consulting firm, are based on quarterly reports to the National Credit Union Administration by 1,056 credit unions with more than $50 million of assets. On Sept. 30 they were managing $185 billion of assets in all, 65% of the total for the nation's 12,912 credit unions.

In the first nine months of 1993, Callahan calculated, the loan portfolios of the 1.056 credit unions' increased 6.5%, to $100.3 billion, while deposits rose only 4.3%, to $164.5 billion.

The pattern contrasts with that of the first nine months of 1992, when the loan portfolios grew only 2.4% while deposits shot up by 9.5%.

In this year's third quarter alone, the loan portfolios rose 2.8% above the June 30 level as deposits increased only 1%.

Regulators Hopeful

Officials of the National Credit Union Administration are cheered by the showing but say it's too early to tell whether the longtime trend of sluggish loan growth has ended.

"These are the best numbers we've seen in five years," said D. Michael Riley, director of examination and insurance for the agency. "But it's a little early to say anything gigantic is happening."

"You can't see a great deal in nine-month data," said Timothy P. McCollum, deputy director of the NCUA's Region 3, in the Southeast. "But it seems loans have hit bottom and are coming back up."

Annualized return on assets for the 1,056 institutions stood at 1.6% for the nine months, Callahan calculated, compared with 1.5% in the year-earlier period. Net income for the nine months stood at $2 billion - about 83% of full-year 1992 earnings.

Dramatic Decline

Investments grew only 3.8% from Dec. 31 to Sept. 30, to $76 billion, a dramatic decline from the 20.8% growth of the year-earlier period. During the third quarter, in fact, the credit unions' investment portfolios fell 0.6% below the June 30 level, as loans picked up.

Credit unions' capital-to-assets ratio stood at 9.2% in September, up from 8.4% a year earlier.

Charles W. Filson, Callahan's president, attributed the pickup in loans a stronger economy, consumer confidence, and marketing by credit unions.

Credit unions' delinquency ratio stood at a historically low 0.8% on Sept. 30, down from 1% a year earlier. Because their assets were of such high quality, credit unions felt more willing to make more loans, said Steven Rick, an economist for the Credit Union National Association.

Auto loans led the loan growth. The total for new and used cars rose 13.9% from Dec. 31, to $31.6 billion on Sept. 30.

Tropical Telco Federal Credit Union, Miami, increased its auto loans 86.2% from Dec. 31 to Sept. 30, to about $97 million - $58 million in new cars and $39 million in used. Tropical Telco's total loan portfolio stood at $225 million on Sept. 30.

"We took a very aggressive pricing stance," said Gregory Blount, president of the $350 million-in-asset institution. During the first quarter the credit union lowered interest rates to 7% - 150 basis points below the average rate for new cars and 350 basis points below average for used autos, Mr. Blount said. Rates are lower now, he said.

The credit union also emphasized refinancing existing auto loans, offering a $100 rebate.

"We had an avalanche of loans beginning the first part of April," Mr. Blount said. He said he expects his credit union to rack up a 30% increase in its loan portfolio for 1993.

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