Shunning the fanfare of some competitors, BankAmerica Corp. is quietly offering a variable-rate credit card priced almost three percentage points below its fixed-rate card.

The nation's second-largest bank company unveiled the card at its California branches in mid-June. The rate on outstanding balances is set at nine percentage points above the prime rate - but has a floor of 16.9%.

That's well below the 19.8% charged on BankAmerica's fixed-rate card, but not in the league of banking's super discounters. North Carolina's Wachovia Corp. last week introduced a variable-rate card at 8.9%.

No Formal Announcement

BankAmerica also is being cautious about marketing the product. Applications were distributed to its branches last month, but the bank has not formally announced or advertised the card.

A bank spokeswoman said, however, that a limited number of current cardholders have been mailed literature on the new product. "We will gradually expand that mailing," she said.

The annual fee for the new card is $18, the same as for the company's fixed-rate card.

BankAmerica has also introduced new pricing for its gold cards, dropping the annual fee to $18 from a steep $48. Interest is set at the prime rate plus eight points, with a floor of 15.9%.

A Force in the Industry

The new rates pale next to those flaunted by some competitors, but the sheer size of Bank-America's card portfolio makes its move significant.

With seven million accounts, the San Francisco company is the industry's fourth-largest issuer of MasterCard and Visa credit cards.

BankAmerica maintains that the new pricing is an indirect result of its recent takeover of Security Pacific Corp.

"We are merging our product lines in various areas, so we thought it would be the appropriate time to rework our products and pricing," a spokeswoman said.

Pressure from Rivals

Some observers contend that the West Coast behemoth is bowing to pressure from competitors.

"From what I understand [BankAmerica is] experiencing a lot of attrition," said one consultant who asked for anonymity. "This is a rational response."

Indeed, rates charged by Security Pacific were essentially the same as those charged by its former competitor. Most of its one million cardholder accounts paid 19.8% to revolve balances and an $18 annual fee.

Big Players Cut Rates

Though BankAmerica held out longer than many of its brethren, the nation's largest issuers have been under heavy pressure to cut rates. They have been attacked by consumer groups and legislators since late last year for not lowering card prices as overall interest rates fell.

AT&T responded by lowering rates on its Universal card more than six months ago. Citicorp followed in April with a performance-based pricing structure that gave lower rates to credit-worthy card customers who consistently paid their bills on time.

The widely publicized plan meant rates that dropped to 15.9% from 19.8% for some of Citicorp's cardholders. It also set off a chain reaction among many other banks nationwide.

The BankAmerica spokeswoman contends that its new rates are not directly related to those pressures.

"We evaluate pricing and prices and marketing ideas on an ongoing basis," she said.

Meanwhile, BankAmerica is taking pains to keep its new group of Security Pacific cardholders within the fold.

Security Pacific had a relationship pricing program that offered lower card rates to customers with other accounts at the bank. BankAmerica has left that program in place, the spokeswoman said.

"Quite a range of rates have been grandfathered," she said.

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