After raising $16 million in a recent stock offering, an Arkansas bank may soon put its improbable credit card juggernaut back into gear.

Simmons First National Bank of Pine Bluff, which made a national name for itself by offering low-rate cards, stopped accepting out-of-state applicants a year ago because the demand had outstripped its capacity.

But president J. Thomas May said the bank is in good position to acquire an as-yet-unidentified Arkansas institution that would bring in the deposits Simmons needs to fund more card loans.

The bank, a subsidiary of the $700 million-asset Simmons First National Corp., has thrived despite a usury law likely to send most card issuers in search of a friendlier regulatory climate. It has succeeded by accepting the most creditworthy of those applicants calling in unsolicited and charging them a healthy $35 to $50 annual fee and a $10 penalty if they exceed their credit limits.

Simmons' acceptance rate is just 31%, about half the industry average.

The calls come in because Simmons perennially tops the low-interest-rate lists published by various consumer newsletters. Arkansas law caps the rate at five points over federal funds, currently 8%.

Because Simmons has a relatively small and selective portfolio, with $160 million in receivables, its loss rates are quarter the industry average.

The fall in the federal funds rate two years ago generated up to 9,000 incoming telephone calls an hour - although Simmons couldn't handle that many because its 23 phone lines were jammed.

Frank Anderson, a bank stock analyst with Stephens Inc., estimates the bank earns a healthy 15% on credit card assets, including the fee income.

Ranks 72d in Outstandings

Simmons ranks 72d in the nation in card outstandings and 170th in total bank assets, said Peter W. Tuz, banking analyst for Morgan Keegan & Co.

Knowing how most bankers deplore interest-rate regulation, Mr. May was almost apologetic about his bank's success.

"We believe the Arkansas usury law is counterproductive in that it tends to export capital," he said.

"The fact is, the usury law is a part of our everyday life and we have chosen to make the most of it."

In the mid-1980s, the bank decided to expand beyond its sleepy hometown base, emphasizing mortgage banking and student lending. But it is the credit card business that bank executives now refer to as "the franchise," Mr. May said.

Mr. May emphasized that he competes only for a narrow segment of the business because the state law leaves it no choice.

"With the usury ceiling we have in Arkansas, we could not have a profitable credit card portfolio if we had a delinquency rate of 5%," he said, citing Visa U.S.A.'s estimate of the average loss rate on bank credit cards.

"In 1992, our past-due ratio was 0.42% compared to industry average of 4.2%. Our loss ratio was 1.28% compared to an industry average 5.03%."

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