In the horse race to boost credit card profitability, the four bank card specialists went neck and neck in first-quarter net income growth.

But Advanta Corp. rounded the turn ahead of its peers in one key area - managed receivables, which increased 64%, to $14 billion.

Advanta had the best balance growth among the group, which also includes First USA Inc., Capital One Financial Corp., and MBNA Corp., noted Moshe A. Orenbuch, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "They added more accounts and are getting higher balances per account."

Receivables growth for Advanta's peers averaged 40%, Mr. Orenbuch said.

The Horsham, Pa.-based financial services company reported a 33% increase in net income in the quarter, to $41 million. The company added more than 675,000 credit card accounts, up 44% from the year-earlier period.

"We've had pretty continual robust growth and balance growth across the broad sector of our niche line of products," said Richard Greenawalt, president and chief operating officer, in an interview. Advanta also markets mortgages, leases, insurance, and deposit products.

Advanta, the nation's 10th-largest bank card issuer, spent $5 million more in the first quarter than in the fourth quarter to pitch cards to its customers, he said.

"We're seeing a little bit of lessening of competition on the card side" from anecdotal evidence, Mr. Greenawalt said. "A lot more players are backing out of the market."

Advanta got a boost in the quarter from repricing a large number of introductory rate accounts up an average 600 basis points, Mr. Greenawalt said. As a result, net interest margin for the quarter rose to 6.24% from 5.88% in the fourth quarter; it was 5.94% in the year-earlier period.

The delinquency rate for Advanta's managed credit card loans was 2.7%.

The other bank card specialists, meanwhile, were not far behind.

MBNA, the second-largest bank card issuer, reported a 34% increase in net income in the first quarter, to $92.2 million.

During the quarter, the company used a $32.8 million tax gain to offset the cost of launching its Platinum Plus program.

A spokesman for the Wilmington, Del.-based company said the growth was a continuation from previous quarters as it focuses on adding new relationships. MBNA said it added 143 affinity relationships during that period, and added a record 2.2 million cardholders.

Total managed loans at March 31 were $27.8 billion, up 37%, with 3.85% of those delinquent.

Net interest margin for the quarter was 7.68%, up from 7.35% in the same period a year earlier.

Capital One, Falls Church, Va., said that net income grew 51% in the quarter, to $38 million.

Capital One, the nation's ninth-largest issuer of MasterCard and Visa, said the earnings reflect an improvement in managed net interest margin, which was offset by an increase in marketing and by higher credit losses.

The net interest margin increased to 8.03% in the quarter, from 6.45% in the same period in 1995. Capital One attributed the increase to the impact of repricing more than $2 billion of introductory rate loans.

Marketing expenses in the quarter grew to $51.5 million, from $41.1 million a year earlier.

During the first quarter, Capital One added 512,000 accounts, bringing its total to 6.7 million. Its managed credit card portfolio dropped by $329 million from the fourth quarter, to $10.1 billion in outstanding receivables, but was up 27% from the year-earlier period.

The company said the loss was consistent with a shift toward lower balances, and away from balance transfers.

"This shows you what it looks like when your growth slows and there's an increase in losses and an increase in margins," Mr. Orenbuch said.

The delinquency rates on managed accounts was 4.51%.

First USA, Dallas, also reported a 34% jump in net income in its third fiscal quarter, ended March 31, to $64.1 million.

The nation's third-largest bank card issuer, First USA said it opened 957,000 accounts during the quarter, a 23% increase over the year-earlier period. Managed card loans at March 31 were $18.3 billion, up 53% over March 31, 1995.

The managed net credit loss rate was 3.36% for the quarter, while the delinquency rate was 4.04%. Net interest margin was 6.06%, up from 5.17% a year earlier.

"We continue to see an increase in delinquencies and net losses to more historical levels," said Richard W. Vague, president, in a release. As the company continues to tighten credit underwriting standards it believes future growth will slow slightly.

During the quarter, First USA completed an initial public offering of First USA Paymentech Inc., its merchant processing subsidiary. The company retains 77% ownership.

The subsidiary reported 75% growth in net income in its third fiscal quarter, to $3.9 million.

Net revenue increased 46%, to $31.6 million, compared with the same quarter a year earlier.

During the quarter ended March 31, Paymentech processed approximately $7.9 billion in sales volume, a 64% increase over the year earlier. The company processed 148 million transactions, a 72% increase.

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