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Credit-delinquency rate rises

WASHINGTON — The delinquency rate on credit cards and consumer loans rose during the final three months of last year, suggesting that some Americans may be having trouble paying bills as the economy has slowed.

The seasonally adjusted percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due rose to 3.34 percent in the fourth quarter of 2000, up from 3.21 percent in the previous quarter, the American Bankers Association said Thursday.

The fourth-quarter delinquency rate of 3.34 percent was the highest since a rate of 3.35 percent in the third quarter of 1999.

"As we expected, the number of delinquent accounts has increased as the economy has slowed," said James Chessen, the association's chief economist. "Consumers who are carrying a higher debt load are most likely to feel the effects of an economic slowdown."

As the economy slowed dramatically in the second half of last year, some Americans worked fewer overtime hours, saw their workweek shorten or were laid off, putting a strain on their ability to pay bills, Chessen said.

Still, Chessen said even with the increase the delinquency rate remains within the average rate seen over the past five years.

The delinquency rate on a composite of other types of consumer loans, including auto loans and closed-end home equity loans, climbed to 2.40 percent in the October-December quarter, from 2.32 percent in the third quarter. The fourth-quarter delinquency rate was the highest since a rate of 2.43 percent in the fourth quarter of 1997.