Contrary to some recent hopeful signs in consumer credit quality, the most seriously delinquent credit card loans have climbed to record levels.

As tracked by Veribanc Inc., bank card loans at least 90 days past due or in nonaccrual status surpassed $4 billion in the third quarter. The implications for banks in 1997 could be dire, depending on the extent of credit expansion in the fourth quarter, said Veribanc research director Warren Heller.

Before the Wakefield, Mass., firm's report last week, the consumer lending industry had been buoyed by the American Bankers Association's third-quarter membership survey that showed the first declines in credit card and closed-end loan delinquencies in two years.

What's more, in the second quarter, when the ABA's estimate of card loans at least 30 days past due hit a record 3.66%, Veribanc's serious- delinquency indicator was tracking downward. "Now we have a situation where not only are the (serious) card delinquencies jumping as if that second quarter lull didn't exist, but we're seeing a pickup in consumer installment loan delinquencies," said Mr. Heller, who drew his findings from the Federal Reserve's Dec. 19 release of call report data for 10,172 banks.

Veribanc said the $4.07 billion of serious credit card delinquencies equaled 1.83% of the $223.1 billion of outstandings on Sept. 30.

The serious delinquencies were up from $3.61 billion, 1.68% of outstandings, in the second quarter, and from $3.12 billion, or 1.53%, in the September 1995 quarter.

Meanwhile, seriously delinquent consumer installment loans rose to $3.36 billion of the $340 billion of balances. The third-quarter past-due total had not exceeded $3 billion since 1992. The 1996 ratio of 0.99% was up from 0.91% in September 1995 but below rates that exceeded 1% in the comparable periods of 1993, 1992, and 1991.

"This problem is more pervasive" than it has been, Mr. Heller said.

According to the ABA's seasonally adjusted September data, 3.48% of member banks' card accounts were at least 30 days past due, down from 3.66% in the second quarter. The composite index of eight types of closed-end loans fell three basis points, to 2.29%.

In its third-quarter earnings analysis, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said delinquent credit card loans jumped to 4.5% of the total from 4.15% in the second quarter.

"Consumers and banks could encounter more problems in 1997," Mr. Heller warned, "particularly if usual seasonal credit expansion occurs during the fourth quarter."

Third-quarter net card chargeoffs were down to $2.31 billion from $2.36 billion on June 30. Those amounts translated to 1.04% and 1.10% of loans, respectively. But cardholder credit limits rose 3% in the third quarter to a record $1.28 trillion, 5.75 times outstandings.

ABA chief economist James Chessen said card delinquencies could rise in the first and second quarter if there was an uptick in Christmas spending. "There's always the worry of a holiday hangover," he said.

More banks are suffering increases in serious credit card delinquencies than were a year ago, Veribanc found. It said 1,854 had higher current- quarter card delinquency rates versus the same quarter a year ago, compared to 1,234 with lower rates. The same trend occurred with noncard loans: 4,564 had a higher rate compared to 3,651 that were lower.

Another potentially unfavorable leading indicator is the rise of personal bankruptcy filings. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, consumers made 1,058,000 new filings in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, a 27.2% rise from the year earlier.

Veribanc also probed consumer bankruptcy cases that affect credit unions, which it termed "a milder view of the same problem."

For the six months through June 30, 112,161 credit union members filed for bankruptcy, up 19% from the comparable 1995 period. But the aggregate loans involved rose 40.5%, to $590 million.

Should that increase reflect the rate at which consumers are losing control of their finances, Mr. Heller said, lenders will have to be more aggressive in curtailing credit.

"Such action would contrast sharply with the 97% of institutions reporting to the FDIC that they did not tighten credit card lending practices between April 1, 1996 and Sept. 30, 1996," said the Veribanc report.

In its December roundup of economic indicators, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland noted that consumer debt equaled 18.11% of personal income in July 1996, up four percentage points since December 1992. The bank said credit card delinquencies tend to follow this indicator with a lag.

Still, "it may be premature to raise the alarm for overburdened households" because historically low mortgage and home equity interest rates have made higher debt levels manageable.

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