Utah's 12.6 percent increase in personal and business bankruptcies in 1988 is one of the largest increases in the region and compares poorly to 1988 figures for Idaho, Wyoming and Montana - states we often think of as economically stagnant.

The number of bankruptcies in Utah has increased sharply each year for the past several years. Last year, 7,448 individuals or businesses took out bankruptcies, up from 6,617 in 1987.In the past, economists have taken comfort in the knowledge that bank ruptcies in neighboring states were also surging.

This year, however, the number of bankruptcies in some nearby states declined while others saw only slight increases, according to the Statistical and Research Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C.

While our neighbors to the north and west fared well, those to the south and east had hard years, too. (See chart.)

There were a few surprises in how Utah's counties ranked in the number of bankruptcies filed per population.

Salt Lake County has had the most bankruptcies in the past three years. From 1985 to 1988, one bankruptcy was filed for every 61 people living in the county.

Economist Thayne Robson blames construction woes for Salt Lake's numerous bankruptcies.

"We've had a real dramatic decline in construction," he said. "A lot of the construction activity was centered in this county."

He noted that it takes a year or two for a decline in an industry to show up as local bankruptcies. This year's bankruptcies probably began as financial reversals a few years ago.

"The bankruptcies we saw in 1988 are a reflection of bad economic conditions in 1986 and 1987," he said.

Retail and service industries have also been slow in Salt Lake County, he said.

Duchesne's second ranking and Uintah's fourth place are no surprise, Robson said. That area is still reeling from the plunge in oil prices. No other industry has come in to pick up the slack, he said.

But Robson was puzzled by the high bankruptcy rate in Weber County. Weber ranked third in the state with one bankruptcy for every 72 residents over a three-year period.

Robson finally concluded that the bankruptcies might be blamed in railroad unemployment and one too many shopping malls.

"They built two shopping malls up there in a community that should only have one," he said. "I bet you that a fair amount of those bankruptcies are in retail associated with the shopping malls. I think there has been a lot of turnover in retail establishments."

Robson also blamed retail problems for Summit's high bankruptcy rate.

"There have been a lot of people trying to open and operate retail shops in Park City," he said. "Many have not succeeded because of the shortness of the ski season. If you walk up and down Main Street in Park City, there has been a lot of turnover in retail and restaurants."

Surprisingly, some of the poorest counties had the fewest bankruptcies.

Robson attributed that to "good old-fashioned values that say `I have to pay my debts, no matter what.'

"Bankruptcy may be acceptable to people in Salt Lake but not acceptable to people in some of these rural counties. They don't take out bankruptcy," he said.

Daggett County _ one of the poorest counties in the state _ has had only one bankruptcy in the past three years. Maybe there's a bright side to no economic development. "There have been no businesses started in Daggett, therefore, they couldn't go bankrupt," Robson said.

He believes Utah's bankruptcies will begin to taper off next year.

"The Utah economy is much stronger. As the economy gets stronger, we would expect bankruptcies to go down. I think the drop in construction has pretty well bottomed out. I would expect to see a decline in the growth in bankruptcies in 1989 because 1988 was a strong year."

***** (chart)

Failures by county

County Population Cases Ratio*

Salt Lake 705,000 11,493 1/61

Duchesne 13,100 194 1/68

Weber 158,000 2,189 1/72

Uintah 21,500 263 1/82

Summit 13,400 156 1/83

Tooele 27,800 305 1/91

Davis 184,000 1,992 1/92

Wasatch 9,800 95 1/103

Carbon 22,000 211 1/104

Millard 12,900 115 1/112

Grand 6,550 58 1/113

Utah 262,000 2,157 1/121

Sevier 15,900 113 1/141

Beaver 4,800 34 1/141

Sanpete 16,700 114 1/146

Wayne 2,100 14 1/150

Morgan 5,700 35 1/163

Emery 11,300 68 1/166

Box Elder 38,000 227 1/167

Washington 43,000 253 1/170

Cache 70,000 399 1/175

Kane 4,900 19 1/258

Rich 1,850 7 1/264

Garfield 4,050 15 1/270

Piute 1,550 4 1/387

Juab 5,700 53 1/415

Iron 19,200 99 1/492

San Juan 12,900 26 1/496

Daggett 700 1 1/700

*Ratio of cases to population