Late payments on credit card bills went down in the first quarter, reversing a delinquency trend that had ticked up steadily in 2000.

According to the quarterly bulletin of the American Bankers Association, 2.99% of all credit card accounts showed payments past due by 30 days or more, down from 3.34% in the fourth quarter and 3.28% in the first quarter of 2000. The volume of dollars delinquent also fell, to 4.13% of total card debt, down from 4.25% in the fourth quarter but up from 3.94% a year earlier.

"It was a dramatic change," said the ABA's chief economist, James Chessen. "A 10% decline in one quarter is really remarkable."

Mr. Chessen attributed the drop partly to debt consolidation by consumers. A flurry of mortgage refinancing in the first four months of 2001 indicates that people are easing their debt burdens, he said.

"This is a change. Consumers are paying more attention to what their debt levels are and they're figuring out ways to consolidate them at a lower interest rate," he said.

Banks themselves may have contributed to the lower delinquency rates. They "have been very aggressive in charging off bad loans," Mr. Chessen said. "Their first-quarter income enables them to do that." The rise in personal bankruptcy filings may have also accounted for some lost accounts by bringing down the total number of delinquencies.

The decline in late card payments fits a rosy picture of general improvement in consumer credit. The ABA's composite index of closed-end installment loans, including auto and home equity, showed the number of delinquencies holding steady in the first quarter. The index measured 2.40% of accounts delinquent, unchanged from the fourth quarter but up from 2.14% in the year-earlier period.

"We'd had three quarters of increasing delinquency rates in the credit card segment and four quarters in the composite. This is a turnaround, which hopefully will be sustained," Mr. Chessen said. "If consumers are the driver - and clearly, they are - and we're looking for signs that they're going to be confident and going to spend, then this is a good indication."

At a Monday press conference, members of the ABA's economic advisory committee said they had detected no serious trouble spots in credit quality. David L. Littmann, chief economist for Comerica Bank in Detroit and chairman of the ABA committee, said that though Comerica was concerned about deterioration of credit quality in a weakened economy, "this isn't a heavily pronounced cycle from our point of view."

Mr. Littmann said that Comerica, like other financial institutions, had tightened its underwriting standards to avoid picking up bad loans. "We've been somewhat conservative," he said, adding that Comerica was working closely with financially strained customers to help them "make it through, especially through the next quarter or two of weakness."

Committee member Kelly Matthews, executive vice president and economist of Wells Fargo & Co.'s bank subsidiary in Salt Lake City, said the Federal Reserve had done well to lower the cost of credit by cutting interest rates. The committee predicted that those reductions were more or less on the wane, but Mr. Matthews said there is more to come.

"I believe the Fed is on track and that we are not building in an inflationary bubble," he said. "Furthermore, I don't believe the Fed is finished in its stimulative efforts."


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