PHOENIX - Predicters of a new-vehicle sales dive this year could be in for a big sur-prise "again," declares Bank One's chief eco-nomist Diane Catherine Swonk.

Income growth, used-unit sales strength (despite the surge in off-lease products) and the "dramatic growth in home equity wealth" counteract the kind of cyclical plunges experienced as recently as 1990-1992.

That's what Ms. Swonk tells a Bank One-sponsored seminar which also explored how popular leasing may be this year and how to make sure off-lease vehicle residual esti-mates are in line with real market values.

Ms. Swonk notes that 1999 vehicle sales approached 17 million units in contrast to year-ago forecasts of 15.5 million.

"That reflects the underlying props I've cited for no more than a mild leveling in 2000, certainly no more than 5% and possibly only 1% or 2%."

Meanwhile, the CEO of Bank One's Finance One Corp. subsidiary, Edward X. Tinsley, at the seminar announced formation of an e-commerce group to focus on Internet sales of used vehicles.

"The Internet requires a different approach to pre-owned vehicle sales than to new vehicles," says Mr. Tinsley. "Our e-commerce group will coordinate efforts with the used-vehicle community, including dealers, auctions and rental companies, to play a proper role in the critical used-unit market."

Mr. Tinsley agrees that "nothing on the horizon points to 2000 being a bad automotive sales year. Look at all the three-car garages being built and the rise in vehicles per household.

"Look at the strong sales of $49,000 SUVs, another example of how, in strong economies, buyers like to show off their money with such purchases."

Seminar panelist Tony Moorby, president and CEO of the ADT Automotive auction network, warns that residual values on leases "are staying under pressure, keeping late-model used-car prices often close to those on new vehicles. That could create problems, especially on the new-unit side."

Positive factors underpinning the overall market's strength, says Mr. Moorby, include profit-sharing bonuses, 401K benefits and the "upbeat stock market, which contributes to a sense of well-being."

There are also used-car and truck leasing opportunities as a way to keep off-lease vehicles from backing up, says seminar panelist Ricky Biggs, managing editor of the Black Book price guide.

He says, "With consumer debt on the rise it's timely now to refocus on used-car leasing, which has been held back for fear of inflated residuals we've been seeing on new units. 'Certified' programs are a great booster for used-car sales and leasing.

"From a dealer standpoint, I recommend that captive lenders be used for 24-month to 30-month contracts on bases, with longer terms going to inde-pendent lenders. The best useds to lease are those three to four years old.

"The Internet so far appears to offer mostly a supplemental service for existing price guides, rather than a sales engine as it is attempting on the new-car side." John H. Eager IV, a residual analyst for NADA, asserts that although used-car prices will stay volatile, "the overall used-vehicle market will remain stable as supply fails to keep pace with demand."

Mr. Eager says many lease portfolios fail to reflect the market at large, and off-lease vehicles may not match preferences of used-vehicle buyers.

In analyzing residual values, dealers and financing institutions should be aware that six factors often are not reflected in value forecasts, he says. These include:

* Excess wear-and-tear losses

* Poor vehicle repairs and frame damage

* Remarketing resources

* Used-car guide accuracy

* Odd equipment configurations

* "Bad" color combinations.

Mr. Tinsley forecast a slower rate of leasing in 2000, stabilizing at about 35% of the market. He issues a warning about inflating residuals:

"We've acted like drunken sailors at setting residuals. We have to be more realistic."

He also recommends greater use of programs returning finance reserves to dealers.

Mr. Tinsley, a former executive of the National Bank of Detroit and First Chicago Bank, replaces Donald Winkler as CEO of Finance One. Mr. Winkler left to become chairman and CEO of Ford Credit