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The percentage of American consumers behind on their loan payments jumped during the first three months of 1992 to the highest level in 21/2 years, a trade group said Thursday.

A seasonally adjusted 2.75 percent of consumer loans were at least 30 days past due at the end of March, up from 2.58 percent three months earlier and 2.67 percent a year earlier, the American Bankers Association said.The rise to the highest level since the third quarter of 1989 came despite many other signs of economic improvement during the quarter.

"Despite a concerted effort to pay down debts, American households continue to be influenced by the ebb and flow of painfully slow economic growth," said economist James Chessen of the association.

"The economic recovery is much like an infant taking a few steps, stumbling now and again, but making progress nonetheless. It is possible to gain ground by taking two steps forward and one step back, but it takes a lot longer," he said.

The delinquency rate is derived from a survey of 800 banks in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It is a composite of rates for a variety of consumer debts, including auto loans, personal loans, boat loans, recreational vehicle loans, mobile home loans, property improvement loans and second mortgages.

By state, rates varied from lows of 1.03 percent in Arizona, 1.16 percent in Washington and 1.25 percent in South Carolina to highs of 5.36 percent in Rhode Island, 4.89 percent in Connecticut and 4.53 percent in Massachusetts.

The report also showed that the delinquency rate for bank credit cards - which are not included in the composite rate - decreased to 2.86 percent from 3.29 percent in December.

The rate on home equity lines of credit, also not included in the composite rate, fell slightly to 0.81 percent from 0.88 percent three months earlier.