Despite tighter loan margins, the top 50 regional banking companies probably will boost earnings per share this quarter by 16% from a year earlier, according to First Call Corp.'s tracking of analysts' consensus.

The analysts expect, by contrast, that the six banks that First Call classifies as money-centers will register a 7% decline from fourth-quarter 1997 levels.

As usual, the fourth quarter is expected to see a number of writedowns and chargeoffs, such as those already disclosed by J.P. Morgan & Co. and Bank One Corp.

When the one-time items are removed, operating income is expected to be in line.

"For regional banks, it's business as usual. They chug along with good earnings growth," said Charles L. Hill, director of research at First Call.

But analysts view the revenue picture as uncertain.

"There is a cautious outlook for revenue growth," said Joseph Duwan of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., who focuses on midwestern banking companies. "So far, loan growth is holding in there, but there are margin issues caused by lower (interest) rates and competitive (loan) pricing."

"The margins are under pressure as expected," said Joseph Morford, an analyst with Van Kasper & Co. of San Francisco, who follows western banks and thrifts.

Mr. Morford said loan growth has been mixed. For instance, the largest regional bank in the West, Wells Fargo & Co. of San Francisco, will probably have only modest loan growth, the analyst said.

"The low-rate environment is a net negative, because rates have come down so much," said Gerry Cronin, an analyst with McDonald Investments Inc. of Cleveland. "The question is: Is there a net interest income compression? My answer is, yes, there has been."

Mr. Cronin-who covers the Midwest, Northeast, and South-said, "Until the economy slows or there are severe credit-quality problems, the companies can sustain double-digit earnings growth."

The fourth quarter is likely to be confusing as a number of banks take nonrecurring charges. A number of banks could report higher costs associated with the year-2000 problem.

Moreover, prominent regional banking companies such as Wells Fargo and Firstar Corp. of Milwaukee will be taking sizable charges to account for merger expenses. Firstar is expected to write off two-thirds of $325 million of costs relating to the merger of Firstar with Star Banc Corp. of Cincinnati.

Wells will take most of a $950 million charge for its merger with Norwest Corp.

Bank One, which First Call classifies as a money-center bank though it may more closely resemble regionals, will take more than $1 billion in charges related to its acquisition of First Chicago NBD Corp., plus asset writedowns.

At least $100 million of the writedowns are related to losses in the leased-car business. Michael Ancell of Edward Jones predicted this week that more companies in that business will take hits.

Some banks will be taking charges for restructurings that include layoffs, branch closings, and other costs. Among these are Huntington Bancshares of Columbus, Ohio; Mercantile Bancorp. of St. Louis; Provident Financial Group of Cincinnati; and Community First Bankshares of Fargo, N.D.

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