BankAmerica Corp. led the latest round of improved bank earnings reports, announcing Wednesday that it had first-quarter net income of $720 million and a return on assets of 1.22%.

The results at the nation's third-largest bank - the net was 18% better than in the year-ago period, and the ROA was up by eight basis points - topped analysts' expectations.

"The loan momentum was good," said Goldman Sachs & Co. analyst Robert Albertson, referring to broad-based growth in both the consumer and commercial portfolios.

Mergers were a factor in other banking companies' profit improvements.

Fleet Financial Group of Boston posted a first-quarter increase of 17%, to $264 million. President and chief executive Terrence Murray said he anticipated further improvements over the next several quarters as the company benefits from its late-1995 purchase of Shawmut National Corp. and completes the buyout of National Westminster Bank of London's U.S. retail operations.

Republic New York Corp., which in the first quarter acquired Brooklyn Bancorp and its CrossLand Federal Savings Bank subsidiary, posted a 13.8% earnings increase, to $99.6 million.

Philadelphia-based CoreStates Financial Corp., which merged with Meridian Bancorp on April 9, had a 61% increase, on a combined basis, to $177 million.

Meanwhile, balance-sheet restructuring and growth in its trust and investment management business helped PNC Bank Corp. boost first-quarter income by 33%, to $238 million.

Norwest Corp. posted large gains in various fee businesses and its mortgage banking subsidiary, reporting quarterly income of $271 million, up 25%.

Wachovia Corp.'s earnings improved 5.4% in the first quarter, to $149.9 million, driven by 12% annualized loan growth and strong fee income. But revenue gains were partly overshadowed by investment spending and losses in the credit card and indirect auto portfolios.

Great Western Financial Corp. of Chatsworth, Calif., the country's second-largest thrift, with $43.8 billion of assets, reported a 64% increase in earnings, to $71.3 million. But analysts expressed surprise at a $15 million increase in expenses from the fourth quarter, to $252 million.

Mr. Albertson of Goldman Sachs said BankAmerica had "a solid quarter." Trading and related income totaled $221 million, 36% more than a year earlier and 22% more than in the fourth quarter. Most of the growth came in foreign exchange and debt instruments.

But there were also some negatives. BankAmerica's net interest margin, which in recent years had been among the steadiest in the industry, declined to 4.36%, 8 basis points below the previous quarter, and 19 below last year's margin.

BankAmerica attributed the decline to increased use of wholesale funding for its growing asset base. The provision for credit losses also rose $80 million from the year-earlier quarter, to $180 million. Net credit losses rose to $239 million, from $162 million.

Pittsburgh-based PNC, which lost $176 million in the fourth quarter due to writeoffs for fixed-income investments, appears on track for a strong earnings year. Dean Witter analyst Anthony Davis credited the company's fourth-quarter restructuring for an improved net interest margin of 3.73%, up 57 basis points, at March 31.

Fee income grew 13% to $322 million, driven by a 33% increase in the investment management and trust business.

Net interest income grew 12% to $616 million, while loans grew 10.5%. The interest income and the better margin spread were direct results of PNC's cleanup of its investment portfolio in 1995, analysts said. "The financial engineering is paying off," said Michael Mayo of Lehman Brothers.

Norwest of Minneapolis, which historically has profited from mortgage and consumer finance subsidiaries, showed only a 7.7% increase in the latter. That was due primarily to chargeoffs - up 83%, to $56 million - and the acquisition of Island Finance. Credit card income grew only 2%.

Total loan losses were $85.5 million, 78% higher than a year ago, forcing Norwest to take an $88 million provision. The $72 billion-asset company reported nonperforming assets were 0.58% of total assets.

Norwest's mortgage business earned $30 million, a 40% increase, largely because of a jump in originations due to lower interest rates.

At Wachovia in Winston-Salem, N.C., earnings came in 1 cent below consensus estimates.

"Overall, it was an O.K.quarter, just not a lot of sex appeal and dazzle right now," said analyst R. Harold Schroeder of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "At the same time, you're not going to be surprised on the downside by them."

Investment spending is expected to hold down Wachovia's earnings through the year as the bank plows more than $100 million into technology, including a new platform automation system, customer information file, and performance measurement software. Noninterest expense, which includes the technology projects, jumped 9% to $308 million from $283 million a year ago.

Barton Crockett, James R. Kraus, Kenneth Cline, and Brett Chase contributed to this article. It was written by Jacqueline S. Gold. +++

PNC Bank Corp. Pittburgh Dollar amounts in millions (except per share) First Quarter 1Q96 1Q95 Net income $238.3 $179.5 Per share 0.69 0.52 ROA 1.34% 0.97% ROE 16.65% 12.81% Net interest margin 3.73% 3.16% Net interest income 616.1 551.1 Noninterest income 321.6 285.6 Noninterest expense 565.6 553.4 Loss provision 0.0 1.5 Net chargeoffs 34.0 36.0 Balance Sheet 3/31/96 3/31/95 Assets $72,668.0 $73,404.0 Deposits 45,621.0 46,899.0 Loans 48,800.0 48,653.0 Reserve/nonp. loans 328.88% 351.68% Nonperf. loans/loans 0.76% 0.74% Nonperf. assets/assets 0.74% 0.73% Nonperf. assets/loans+OREO1.10% 1.10% Leverage cap. ratio 6.90% 6.37% Tier 1 cap. ratio 8.10%* 8.00% Tier 1+2 cap. ratio 11.60%* 11.56%

*Estimated

Fleet Financial Group Inc. Boston Dollar amounts in millions (except per share) First Quarter 1Q96 1Q95 Net income $264.0 $226.0 Per share 0.94 0.82 ROA 1.41% 1.14% ROE 16.96% 16.24% Net interest margin 4.43% 4.27% Net interest income 732.0 769.0 Noninterest income 519.0 402.0 Noninterest expense 758.0 764.0 Loss provision 35.0 20.0 Net chargeoffs 60.0 60.0 Balance Sheet 3/31/96 3/31/95 Assets $72,123.0 $81,862.0 Deposits 50,121.0 53,435.0 Loans 47,559.0 50,475.0 Reserve/nonp. loans 257.88% 212.80% Nonperf. loans/loans 1.05% 1.42% Nonperf. assets/assets 0.77% 1.00% Nonperf. assets/loans+OREO1.16% 1.62% Leverage cap. ratio 7.90% 6.83% Tier 1 cap. ratio 9.18% 8.41% Tier 1+2 cap. ratio 13.02% 12.42%

BankAmerica Corp. San Francisco Dollar amounts in millions (except per share) First Quarter 1Q96 1Q95 Net income $720.0 $611.0 Per share 1.79 1.46 ROA 1.22% 1.14% ROE 15.19% 13.86% Net interest margin 4.36% 4.55% Net interest income 2,146.0 2,046.0 Noninterest income 1,274.0 1,093 Noninterest expense 2,013.0 1,050.0 Loss provision 180.0 100.0 Net chargeoffs 239.0 77.0 Balance Sheet 3/31/96 3/31/95 Assets $234,243.0 $223,188.0 Deposits 160,517.0 152,268.0 Loans 156,155.0 144,159.0 Reserve/nonp. loans 195.53% 182.24% Nonperf. loans/loans 1.15% 1.46% Nonperf. assets/assets 0.76% 0.94% Nonperf. assets/loans+OREO 0.97% 1.19% Leverage cap. ratio 6.77% 6.74% Tier 1 cap. ratio 7.30% 7.20% Tier 1+2 cap. ratio 11.50% 11.60%

Wachovia Corp. Winston-Salem, N.C. Dollar amounts in millions (except per share) First Quarter 1Q96 1Q95 Net income $149.9 $142.2 Per share 0.87 0.82 ROA 1.35% 1.46% ROE 16.26% 17.48% Net interest margin 3.95% 4.36% Net interest income 388.8 372.8 Noninterest income 184.1 157.1 Noninterest expense 308.2 283.0 Loss provision 27.3 21.8 Net chargeoffs 27.2 19.4 Balance Sheet 3/31/96 3/31/95 Assets $45,425.0 $40,223.0 Deposits 25,909.0 23,110.0 Loans 29,869.0 26,728.0 Reserve/nonp. loans 707% 569% Nonperf. loans/loans 0.20% 0.27% Nonperf. assets/assets 0.17% 0.23% Nonperf. assets/loans+

OREO 0.26% 0.35% Leverage cap. ratio 8.20% 8.70% Tier 1 cap. ratio 9.40% 9.40% Tier 1+2 cap. ratio 13.50% 12.60% ===

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