Four of the 10 most profitable major banks in the world are U.S. institutions, according to a ranking by the London-based rating agency IBCA Ltd.

The four are Banc One Corp., State Street Boston Corp., Bankers Trust New York Corp., and Norwest Corp.

Spanish Bank No. 1

They were ranked second, fourth, eight, and ninth, respectively, in profitability.

Madrid-based Banco Popular Espanol was ranked as the world's most profitable.

IBCA calculated profitability for the world's 300 biggest banks, as measured by assets. The agency adjusted each bank's profits for the inflation rate in its home country, differences in national accounting rules and reporting practices, and other factors. It then divided the adjusted earnings into equity to calculate an institution's "real profitability."

Under IBCA's resulting index, a rating of 1.00 means that a bank's return on equity is just keeping pace with inflation. The highest-ranked bank, Banco Popular, had a rating of 1.396, followed by Banc One at 1.300.

U.S. Dominates Top 50

U.S. banks accounted for 19 of the 50 most profitable major banks in the world, according to the rating agency.

"Despite their well-publicized problems, [U.S. banks] still dominate the top 50 rankings and have, by a considerable margin, the greatest representation," IBCA stated.

IBCA noted that better performance and a decline in the U.S. inflation rate had contributed to improvement in real profits at U.S. banks in 1991. The agency also cited "notable improvement" in the capital strength of U.S. banks during the past two years.

"Banks that do well tend to be banks which are very focused," said Mark Gross, senior vice president at IBCA in New York.

The agency predicted U.S. banks would further improve profits while earnings at banks in other countries will come under increasing pressure as a result of rising problem loans and tighter capital constraints.

Problems Recognized Early

"One of the good things going for U.S. banks is that regulators forced them to recognize their asset-quality problems earlier," Mr. Gross said. In contrast, banks in other countries are only now beginning to tackle the same problems, he said.

Among U.S. banks falling in the rankings, Wells Fargo & Co. was the single biggest loser, dropping from third place last year to 271st as a result of asset-quality problems. Wachovia Corp. also fell, from ninth to 55th place.

Citicorp, the biggest U.S. banking company and 20th-largest worldwide as measured by assets, was ranked 282d in profitability.

No Japanese or French bank and only one German bank figured among the top 50 in profitability.

Japanese banks were noticeably absent from the world's most profitable.

The highest-ranking Japanese institution was Hokkoku Bank, with only $18 billion in assets, which came in 109th.The Top 10Ranked by "real" profitability,(*)according to index developedby IBCA Ltd.Banco Popular Espanol 1.398Banc One 1.300Banco de Santander 1.254State Street Boston 1.239Bangkok Bank 1.232United Overseas Bank 1.227Banco Bilbao Vizcaya 1.224Bankers Trust 1.223Norwest 1.218Bank of China 1.217(*) A measurement of 1.0 means abank's profits are only keeping upwith inflation

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