Utahns may be labeled thrifty conservatives, but statistics indicate a majority of local citizens don't pay their bills on time.

Figures released last month by the American Bankers Association and the Mortgage Bankers Association ranked the Beehive state No. 1 in consumer loan delinquency and No. 2 in late house payments in 1988. A loan is considered delinquent when at least one payment is 30 days late.Reasons for the dubious honor of the top deadbeat state range from a sluggish economy and low wages to the abundance of easy credit available to Utah's young, spendthrift population.

"It's ironic because of our noted moral and work ethic. But, we also have appetites for the pleasures of life and are getting barraged by advertising pressuring us to buy and spend," said Vaun Morrow, a senior vice president of lending at Valley Bank & Trust and chairman of the ABA's Consumer Credit Division.

There are some unique circumstances in Utah, which could account for the state's poor credit rating, according to local economists and credit managers.

Many experts initially blame Utah's stagnant economy. The state's economy bottomed out in 1987, resulting in problems for most overextended consumers. But the poor credit record reported by the ABA occurred in 1988, when Utah's economy was on the rebound and unemployment at all-time lows.

"I believe the problem stems from the change in attitudes of younger Americans" to consume and not save, said Mark Davis, a financial planner for Moreton Financial Corp.

Utah's population is young and earns some of the lowest wages in the country. But despite those factors, many young adults will take on house payments, charge cards, auto loans and other credit without adequate means to cover the resulting debt.

"If something happens to rock the boat (such as a downturn in the economy), they don't make payments," said Barbara Rowe, a consumer economist at Utah State University.

Jeff Thredgold, chief economist for Key Bank of Utah, said most late payments and resulting foreclosures involve first-time homebuyers who are more vulnerable to swings in the economy than older, financially established citizens.

The Mortgage Bankers Association noted that while Utahns may be late in making payments (9.13 percent of all mortgage holders), the state has one of the lowest foreclosure rates, 1.84 percent, in the Mountain West.

The problem isn't entirely the fault of undisciplined consumers. Businesses marketing credit offerings must also take some responsibility. "There needs to be tighter control within the lending institutions," Davis said, noting mortgage companies will allow homeowners to borrow up to 40 percent of their income.

Murrow agreed that businesses must control their tendencies to offer easy credit as a way to increase sales. "We have to establish good policies and not lend to just everyone."

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(CHART)

Consumer credit delinquencies at commercial banks:

Utah............6.40 percent

Puerto Rico.....6.20 percent

Louisiana.......5.37 percent

The ratio is a composite of personal, auto, mobile home, recreational vehicle, property improvement, credit cards, home equity loans, and revolving and home equity lines of credit.