Bank of New York Co. cast itself as an industry leader with its decision Wednesday to boost reserves against credit card losses. But it also may have crimped its flexibility to pursue some of its own goals.

Industry observers said the bank resolved a significant problem in its credit card portfolio by setting aside $350 million to cover possible losses.

But at the same time, Bank of New York may have curtailed its ability to do large cash acquisitions and follow through on announced plans to accelerate its share buyback. And it opened itself to questions about its resolve to stay in the credit card business at all.

"The management team does not like to be disappointed in various business results," said Judah Kraushaar, a bank analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co. "I wonder if they might have a changing view of the future return prospects of the card business."

The bank was adamant that exiting the card business is not an option. Chairman J. Carter Bacot has reaffirmed the bank's commitment to the credit card business, a spokesman said Thursday. The bank has $5.4 billion in credit card loans outstanding, placing it 18th among card companies.

On balance, the loan-loss provision - $20 million more than Bank of New York set aside for possible defaults in all of 1995 - was seen as a strong signal of management concern over the card business. Credit card delinquencies recently hit the highest level in 15 years, and experts expect them to increase through 1997.

Credit card consultant James L. Accomando said Bank of New York has been particularly vulnerable to delinquencies. That's because its chief offering, the Consumer's Edge card, is geared to credit card users who carry a balance. That subjects the bank to "a higher concentration of cards that could be at risk," Mr. Accomando said.

The bank's recent capital gains from the $540 million sale of its AFL- CIO affinity card business to Household International are expected to offset the loss provision.

Mr. Accomando said this sale, along with the buildup in reserves and a perception that Bank of New York's management has become "disheveled," create a "disconcerting" picture of the bank. But, he added, it's possible that the bank is coming to the end of a period of restructuring.

While some observers said Bank of New York's circumstances are unique, others said competing banks would do well to follow its lead.

Given the industry's recent record earnings, "banks can afford to set up these reserves and if they're wrong, they can always reverse them," said Edward E. Furash, chairman of Furash & Co., a Washington consulting firm.

Other bankers, however, said they felt no pressure to emulate Bank of New York's move.

Banc One Corp., another leading card lender, is "comfortable" with its current provision for loan losses, said George Miling, treasurer at the Columbus, Ohio-based banking company.

Mr. Miling added that credit card lending is unlikely to spiral into the sort of problem that real estate lending became in the early 1990s.

"The nature of consumer lending is different from commercial lending in that it's more actuarially based and there are smaller loans to a larger number of people," Mr. Miling said. "I don't think larger provisions will be a widespread trend at all."

Some industry experts viewed the Bank of New York's provision as an admission that the widely used credit-scoring technology is not as effective as the banks claimed.

"It really casts doubt on the credit-scoring system in that it doesn't seem to have much predictive value as far as personal bankruptcies," said an investment analyst who provides advice to an approximately $15 billion fund.

Lisa Fichenscher contributed to this article.

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