ORLANDO -- Bank credit card growth nearly stalled last year as consumers closed accounts almost as fast as banks signed up cardholders, the American Bankers Association said Monday.

The number of Visa and MasterCard accounts in the United States grew only 5% in 1991, less than half the 11.14% rate of the year before, according to the trade group's annual bank card survey.

The number of active accounts -- those with outstanding balances -- grew 4.8% in 1991, compared with 7.8% the year before.

"The economy is in the middle of a recession, and people are a lot more concerned about their spending habits -- and a lot more concerned about the money that they owe," said Joseph Saunders, head of the bank card program at Household International.

People, he said, are simply tearing up their credit cards.

The disturbing attrition numbers are affecting both the large and smaller banks, according to the report, which was based on a nationwide survey of 203 card-issuing commercial banks.

About 60% of account closures at all but the nation's biggest banks were initiated by cardholders themselves, the study found. At the biggest institutions -- those with more than $750 million in bank card outstandings -- 52% of closures were initiated by cardholders rather than by issuers who were tightening up on their credit standards.

However, issuers too are being forced to refine their criteria for issuing cards. The report from the bankers group found that bank issuers of MasterCard and Visa credit cards charged off more than $8 billion last year, up 45% from the previous year.

Bankers attending an ABA card conference here said keen competition among issuers also is influencing consumers to be more selective about their cards. Many are being lured from their old issuers with promises of lower balances or no fees from competitors.

"There was a lot of trading and moving in cards last year," said Jerry H. Wagner, a senior vice president at Rocky Mountain BankCard System Inc. and incoming president of the ABA's bank card division.

He specifically cited the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., which has been aggressively soliciting other banks' customers with the lure of no annual fee on its Universal card.

Last, year's trends have continued into 1992, bankers said, noting that competition remains fierce.

"The survey finally shows that this business is not one homogeneous bunch of people doing things the same way," Mr. Saunders said. "There's no question that there remains a lot of activity and that is good for consumers."

The ABA survey found that card issuers are responding to the attrition problem with alternative pricing options.

Last year, 60% of the largest issuers were offering at least four different interest rate plans, the survey found. The most common rates industrywide ranged from 16.46% to 18.35%.

Consumers are responding more to lower rates than to fees, Mr. Wagner said.

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