Consumer loan delinquencies rose in the fourth quarter in most major lending categories, the American Bankers Association said Wednesday.

The association's quarterly composite index, covering several types of closed-end loans including automobile and home equity, indicated that 2.35% of accounts were at least 30 days past due on Dec. 31. That was up from 2.29% for the third quarter.

Bank credit card delinquencies rose to 3.45% of accounts from 3.28% in the third quarter, and 3.04% at ABA-surveyed banks on Dec. 31, 1997. The fourth-quarter percentage of dollars delinquent fell by a basis point, to 4.62%. That was also down from 5.38% at the end of 1997.

The composite dollars delinquent rose during the latest quarter to 1.97% from 1.83%, but were below the 2.20% of yearend 1997.

The booming economy and low unemployment tended to lead borrowers to add to their debt burdens, and "clearly a few more people tripped over the line in the fourth quarter," said ABA chief economist James Chessen.

He and other observers pointed out that delinquency rates have been fluctuating in recent quarters, and closely followed statistics like those on credit cards are still well below historical or cyclical peaks.

Banks are likely to be "a little more wary about what might happen to people on the margin if the economy slows," Mr. Chessen said.

"Consumer confidence is near a record high," said Sung Won Sohn, senior vice president and chief economist at Wells Fargo & Co. "The stock market is booming. The jobs are plentiful with the labor shortages from sea to shining sea. Many consumers have gone well beyond what they normally would take on in terms of debt."

Mr. Sohn said manufacturing workers are extending lines of credit to purchase goods such as motorcycles and snowmobiles, with the expectation that they will be able to finance the purchases with future overtime pay.

"The overall rise in the delinquency rate is a reflection probably of the slower savings rate and overconfidence consumers have in the economic future," he said.

The ABA, in its quarterly Consumer Credit Delinquency Bulletin, reported an increase in the percentage of delinquent accounts for indirect auto loans to 2.47% from 2.41%. Home equity loans rose to 1.24% from 1.21%; home equity lines of credit to 0.78% from 0.75%. Direct auto loans decreased, however, to 2.06% from 2.11%.

"These are very small changes," said Lawrence Chimerine, chief economist at the Economic Strategy Institute and a consultant to MasterCard International of Purchase, N.Y. "Consumers are not overburdened by debt on a broad basis. Today's report just reinforces that."

Still, the robustness of the economy should dictate lower delinquencies, said Peter S. Yoo, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, who characterized the prevailing trends as "puzzling."

"The question is, why are these consumers going deeper into debt?" Mr. Yoo said. "It does seem a little troubling that these things are at the levels that they are, given how strong the economy is."

Delinquencies for the composite last peaked in the third quarter of 1991 at 2.74% of accounts. Credit card latenesses hit a high of 3.72% of accounts in the fourth quarter of 1996.

Mr. Chessen said banks are well prepared for any economic downturn. For one thing, they have tightened revolving consumer credit, a category that includes bank cards.

According to Federal Reserve preliminary numbers as of Jan. 31, total revolving credit at banks declined 2.1% over a year's time, to $205 billion. Revolving credit for all lenders increased 6.2% to $575 billion. Banks' total consumer loans were up 1.4%, to $506 billion.

Banks and other lenders have also helped themselves by securitizing their revolving debt. The level of $270 billion is up 22% from a year earlier.

"The bottom line is the economy" and the tight labor market, Mr. Sohn said, which he said he expects to stay that way "for the foreseeable future."

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