Poor management has played a much more significant role in the recent spate of bank failures than have the depressed conditions in agriculture, energy and other economic sectors, according to a study released yesterday by federal bank regulators.

The study of 162 nationally chartered banks that went under since 1979 shows that management deficiencies played a key role in 89 percent of the failures, while economic problems were a significant cause of failure in only 35 percent.

In some cases, several factors were responsible for a bank's failure.

"Our findings suggest that banks continue to fail the old-fashioned way: through managerial incompetence, director neglect and so on," said Robert L. Clarke, comptroller of the currency, in a speech yesterday. Clarke's office, which conducted the study, is responsible for regulating about 4,800 nationally chartered banks.

Since 1979, bank failures have escalated dramatically, with 184 closing their doors in 1987, compared with 10 in 1979.

During this period, 173 nationally chartered banks failed, compared with about 100 in the previous 45 years, according to Lee Cross, a spokeswoman for the comptroller's office.

Clarke said in his speech to financial industry officials that his office conducted the study to test what he said was a widely held presumption that bad economic times -- for instance, in the oil patch or agricultural heartland -- were solely responsible for the rapid rise in bank failures.

In fact, depressed economic conditions was the sole significant factor in the failures of only 7 percent of the banks analyzed in the study.

The study did show that economic distress has become a more important factor in bank failures in recent years: In the past three years, it contributed significantly to almost 40 percent of the failures, compared with only 21 percent of the failures between 1979 and 1984.

But a far greater factor in bank failure was management or board deficiencies, the study found.

Nearly 60 percent of the banks that failed "were judged to have a board of directors that either lacked necessary banking knowledge or was uninformed or passive in its supervision of the bank's affairs," Clarke said.

In addition, Clarke said, 81 percent of the banks that failed had loan policies that were followed poorly, or not at all; 69 percent had inadequate systems to ensure compliance with internal policies or banking laws; and 63 percent had inadequate controls or supervision of key bank officials or departments.

Clarke also said that in 43 percent of the cases, the banks were harmed because the board or management was "overly aggressive, excessively growth-minded or extremely liberal in credit administration." Self-dealing and other insider abuses played a role in 35 percent of the failures.

Cross, the comptroller's spokeswoman, said the office is in the midst of a second study intended to sample problem banks that recovered from their difficulties, as well as healthy banks.

The office intends to use the data from the studies to help its regulators better spot potential difficulties at seemingly healthy institutions, she said.

A spokesman for the American Bankers Association, a major trade group, declined comment on the study, saying the association has not had a chance to review it. A spokesman for the Federal Despoit Insurance Corp., which is responsible for monitoring 8,500 state-chartered banks, said the comptroller's numbers "match up pretty well with our own experience."