One sign that California's banking market remains one of the hottest in the country is that three upstart regional banks in the state beat Wall Street's expectations for the fourth quarter and for the full year, fueled by strong loan growth, fee income gains, and stable asset quality.

Profits were exceptionally strong at two banks that cater to the Chinese-American community. UCBH Holdings Inc. of San Francisco, with $2.2 billion of assets, surpassed 1999 estimates by 3 cents a share, and East West Bancorp Inc. of San Marino, with $2.1 billion of assets, beat estimates by 2 cents.

Meanwhile, $7.2 billion-asset City National Corp. of Beverly Hills beat the Street's forecast by a penny. "All three companies ended the year on a strong note and have good momentum heading into this year," said Joseph K. Morford 3d, an analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels in San Francisco.

Earnings at UCBH soared 75%, to $19.1 million, or $2.01 a share. UCBH attributed the success to a 12% increase in its net interest margin, a 76% jump in commercial loan originations, and a 16% gain in core deposits.

"We are pleased with the strong performance of the company and believe we are positioned for continued growth in 2000," said Tommy S. Wu, president and chief executive officer of UCBH.

East West's profits surged 55%, to $28 million, or $1.23 a share, continuing the company's impressive growth. East West has beaten the Street's estimate each quarter since becoming a publicly traded company in February 1998.

"They've had quite a start out of the gate," said Derek Derman, an analyst at Wedman Morgan Bush Securities in Los Angeles, who has a "strong buy" rating on East West's stock.

Dominic Ng, chairman and chief executive officer of East West, said a 47% jump in fee income and a 30% increase in total loans - in particular, the company's multi-family and commercial real estate portfolio - contributed to the solid year.

"Everything is going as planned," Mr. Ng said. "We expect 20% earnings per share growth in 2000." At City National, profits rose 12%, to $108.1 million, or $2.30 per share. The year was highlighted by fee income growth of 29%, a 21% hike in total loans, and a 9% increase in core deposits. Asset quality remained steady, even though two syndicated loans to nursing homes resulted in chargeoffs of about $8 million. Total nonperforming assets were $26.7 million, or 0.49% of total loans.

Wall Street appears to be encouraged by the results. Since earnings were released last Thursday, shares of City National have risen 3%, closing at $33.3125 Tuesday. East West has jumped 2%, to $12.4375, and UCBH has gained 4%, to $20.75.

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