The struggle between banks and nonbanks for credit card supremacy shows no signs of abating, according to American Banker's annual card industry survey.

Banks as a group continue to lose market share, and their competition keeps getting more numerous. In each of the last three years, a nonbank has joined the ranks of the top 50 card programs in receivables. This year's addition, JC Penney Co., brings the nonbank contingent on the list to 15.

Moreover, the nonbanks' card operations continue to grow faster. The banks and thrifts among the top 50 grew 21.2% in the 12 months through March 31, trailing the 15 nonbanks' 25.8% growth.

In terms of market share, the traditional banks declined to 51.2% of the total on March 31, from 52.2% a year before and 53.6% in 1993. Meanwhile, nonbanks were boosting share to 26.1% from 22.7% in 1994 and 20.6% in 1993.

Industry observers attribute nonbanks' success to marketing skills and investments in sophisticated technology.

"I can't point to a quarter in which nonbanks have not grown faster" than the traditional issuers, said Bear Stearns & Co. analyst Susan Roth. "They are simply better marketers."

But there were exceptions to the rule, notably First Union Corp., which posted the fastest growth in the top 50 - 84.4% in the year through March 31, to $4.4 billion.

In its 1994 annual report, First Union said it wanted to become "a leader in the credit card industry in profitability, credit quality, and superior customer service." It's on its way, raising its rank to 19th from 23rd. Analysts point to First Union's significant marketing and human resource investments over the past year.

"First Union is one of the few banks actually taking market share," noted Ms. Roth.

Another fast grower is the Delaware bank owned by Beneficial Corp. in Wilmington, Del., which jumped 69.4%, to $1.7 billion. The company's specialization - it has been issuing private-label cards for four years and is now expanding into cobranded bank cards - appears to have paid off.

Beneficial claims its state-of-the-art technology enabled it to grow rapidly, according to PaineWebber analyst Gary Gordon.

"As new guys on the block," said Mr. Gordon, "Beneficial may very well have better technology than its competitors," which in the private-label niche are led by GE Capital.

The American Banker results, however, indicate that some of the nonbanks may have grown at the expense of credit quality. The five issuers with the highest percentage of noncurrent loans - at least 90 days past due - are nonbanks. Conversely, four of the five issuers with lowest percentage of noncurrent loans are banks.

But in terms of loans charged off loans, four of the five lowest rates belong to nonbanks. The leader is Capital One Financial Corp., on the American Banker list for the first time. The recent spinoff of the Richmond-based Signet Banking Corp. is known for its customer-targeting and risk management technology.

Second best in chargeoffs is USAA Federal Savings Bank, the affiliate of United Services Automobile Association, the mutual insurance company for military officers.

Three of the five highest chargeoff rates are owned by nonbanks: The Limited Inc., Prudential Insurance Co. of America, and JC Penney.

Still, Ms. Roth pointed out, it is not unusual for retailing industry issuers like JC Penney and The Limited to have higher-than-average chargeoffs. Ms. Roth said she is "more concerned about rapid growth in the bank card portfolios."

"Nonbanks are much better equipped to understand risk profiles," she said, because of their advanced technology.

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