The credit card delinquency rate-the percentage of accounts at least 30 days past due-rose in the first quarter, but in terms of dollars the statistic improved.

As tracked in the American Bankers Association's quarterly compilation of banks' consumer loan performance, 3.58% of credit card accounts were overdue on March 31. It was the fourth-highest reading among ABA figures dating back to 1980. It was up from 3.45% in the fourth quarter and 3.11% in the first quarter last year.

Economists are not terribly worried, and they say banks are better able to handle card problems now than they were in the last quarter of 1996, when account delinquencies spiked at 3.72%.

That attitude was reinforced by the positive trend in dollars delinquent.

Volume fell to 4.44% of outstandings in the first quarter, from 4.62% in the fourth and 5.42% in the first quarter of 1998.

That figure also peaked in the fourth quarter of 1996, at 5.45%.

For the last three years, "banks have been tightening their underwriting standards and scaling back lines of credit to people viewed as higher risk," said Keith Leggett, senior economist at the ABA in Washington. As a result, "there is less dollar volume being exposed."

Industry economists were pessimistic in 1997, after several consecutive quarters of high delinquencies in credit cards and other lending categories. If economic conditions deteriorated, they feared, defaults would skyrocket and erase lenders' profits.

Among the reasons that those concerns have subsided is banks' increasing use of sophisticated risk management tools as they have extended loans to a broader base of consumers.

"The industry pulled back and reversed that upward trend" of delinquencies, said James Annable, chief economist at Bank One Corp. in Chicago.

Moreover, the flush economy has helped foster a "sanguine feeling" about delinquency rates," he said. "A recession seems a long way away in this kind of environment."

Unusual wage growth has put U.S. households "in remarkably good shape," Mr. Annable said. "Confidence is high, and consumers are spending a lot, but they really have the income, the capacity to spend."

Warren Heller, research director at Veribanc, a bank rating and research firm in Wakefield, Mass., said high card delinquencies reflect a "new paradigm."

Most card issuers say that "the situation has lasted so long, it's obviously stable," he said. But he views the stability as fragile.

Late fees and other credit card penalties are more than offsetting losses from delinquent accounts, he said. But if unemployment rises, there could be a "double whammy" of higher delinquencies and dwindling fee income.

Mr. Leggett said the fact that card delinquencies are "hovering at a high rate" and "haven't bounced back to previous levels" may be a good sign.

"Credit is available to a broader segment of our society, and that is really a positive development," he said. "Before, whole classes of individuals weren't able to get credit, but technology has made it possible for lenders to extend credit to greater segments of our population."

In home equity loans, the first-quarter results were similar to those of bank cards. The percentage of delinquent accounts rose (to 1.29%, from 1.24% in the fourth quarter), but the percentage of dollars delinquent dropped (to 0.69%, from 0.78%).

Among direct auto loans, delinquencies fell to 1.96%, from 2.06% the previous quarter. The figure for indirect auto loans fell to 2.43%, from 2.47%.

Delinquencies declined in the ABA's composite ratio, which incorporates eight types of closed-end loans. Delinquent accounts represented 2.32% of the composite total, down from 2.35% in the previous quarter. Delinquent dollars decreased to 1.68% of outstandings, from 1.7%.

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