MONTEREY, Calif. - The "rolling recession" in real estate has rolled into Southern California like a flood.

That a real estate debacle could start in Texas, jump to the Northeast, then somehow leap-frog to the West Coast is a strange idea. But for lack of a better reason, this seems to be the accepted theory.

Now, community bankers in Northern California, a region as different from the state's southern half as New York is from Miami, are hoping the levees hold.

Northern California and its San Francisco metropolis didn't have the kind of rampant growth nor the wild speculation that caused Southern California's real estate problems with its deadening effects on community banks.

But if the rolling theory holds true, Northern California and even Washington could be next.

"It seems to be rolling north," said Derek Thomas, partner in charge of real estate consulting services in the San Diego office of Kenneth Levanthal & Co., pointing out that the real estate recession first took hold in San Diego, then headed up the coast to unleash itself on unsuspecting community bankers in Los Angeles.

Community banks in Northern California, however, have so far been spared the real estate problems of their southern brethren. They are making money so far this year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, while in the south community banks haven't made money as a group in 18 months.

Nonperformers Higher in South

In the south, nonperforming real estate credits at 211 community banks total 7.53% of total assets. In the north, that ratio is only 3.93%.

Los Angeles is currently experiencing a 20% office vacancy rate, which Mr. Thomas expects to get worse by 1995. San Francisco, by comparison, has a 12% office vacancy rate, expected to lessen by 1995.

"The San Francisco market is a more mature, stable market," Mr. Thomas said. He added that Northern California hasn't been hit nearly as hard by job losses in the aerospace and defense industries, which has decimated Southern California's work force.

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