The strong economy has boosted banks' balance sheets, but not all of their consumer business lines are sharing equally in the boom.

Consumer loans on the books of the 50 consumer lending institutions grew 5.6% in 1998, according to data gathered by Sheshunoff Information Services for American Banker.

The most striking growth category was home equity loans, which rose 9.4% among the top 50 in 1998. The larger category of credit card loans declined 9.7%, and first mortgages grew 7.19%.

"The statistics seem to suggest that card lenders have lost market share," said David Levy, director of forecasting at the Jerome Levy Economic Institute in Mount Kisco, N.Y.

Aggressive home equity marketing combined with low interest rates and record levels of homeownership may be contributing to consumers' preference to carry their debt in vehicles other than credit cards, economists say.

The strongest sectors of the economy are housing and automobiles, said Lawrence Chimerine, chief economist at the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. It is therefore not surprising that the strongest credit growth was linked to real estate and auto lending, Mr. Chimerine said.

All other consumer loans, according to the data, rose 12% in 1998. This catch-all category includes auto, boat, personal, and student loans.

Economists suggested that the two-digit growth was due mostly to auto loans and other loans related to luxuries.

The decline in card debt is more confounding and perhaps partly explained by the fact that the data cover only the loans banks keep on their balance sheets, and not securitizations.

"There is no question that home equity lending has some impact (on card debt), but the larger issuers are funding a portion of their assets to fuel other growth," said Robert K. Hammer of R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Bank of America, the top consumer lender, is also the leading provider of home equity lines of credit, with $19.6 billion in that category, an increase of 43.6% over 1997.

Citigroup, which ranked seventh at $5.5 billion, had the highest growth rate, 54.7%. Citigroup, No. 1 by a wide margin in credit card balance-sheet outstandings, also led the top 50 in the nonperforming consumer loan ratio, at 2.6%.

Nonperforming credit card loans, defined as accounts with delinquencies of 90 days or longer, rose for the entire top 50 to 2.22%, from 2.14% in 1997. Bank One Corp. had the highest percentage of delinquent card loans, at 5.91%. National City Corp., Mellon Bank Corp., U.S. Bancorp, and Wachovia Corp. were all under 1%.

Union Planters Corp. had the highest delinquency rate, 3.06%, in home equity lending.

Republic New York Corp. and First Tennessee National Corp. grew the fastest in overall consumer lending, with growth rates last year of 50.6% and 51.7%, respectively.

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