California and Illinois have lost ground as financial centers, according to a new survey.

Mergers and interstate banking have taken bank headquarters and assets elsewhere since 1992.

By last Sept. 30, both states had slipped in the rankings of the top 20 by banking assets, according to Sheshunoff Information Services. California went from second place in 1992 to third last year, and Illinois dropped from third place to fourth.

However, North Carolina's star rose. It jumped from 11th place to second, and total bank assets there grew sixfold, to $599 billion, according to Sheshunoff.

New York was still the top state in 1998, with more than $1 trillion in bank assets.

California had $491 billion, and Illinois had $280 billion.

The rankings were calculated using quarterly call report data provided by banks to federal regulators. Assets were counted for the state in which a commercial bank holding company is headquartered.

"We are seeing the balance tilt," said Robert Colvin, a managing director at Sheshunoff. It was the first significant shift away from California and Illinois, he said.

"There's more of a dispersion of bank assets."

Mergers were behind most of the shift, he said. For example, the number of banks in California dwindled throughout the 1990s. BankAmerica Corp., formerly based in San Francisco, moved its headquarters to Charlotte, N.C. last year after it merged with NationsBank Corp.

Meanwhile, North Carolina's two famously acquisitive bankers-First Union Corp.'s Edward E. Crutchfield and the new BankAmerica's Hugh L. McColl Jr.- helped the state emerge as a banking mecca.

"Mohammed and the mountain both reside in Charlotte," said Thad Woodard, president of the North Carolina Bankers Association, referring to the two bankers. "We owe them a debt of gratitude."

But banking industry figures in rival states brushed aside the suggestion that they are losing ground.

"With interstate branching, a lot of the state-by-state analysis doesn't even make sense anymore," said David Burgess, a policy analyst at the California Bankers Association in San Francisco. Mr. Burgess noted that California added 19 bank charters last year, up from a gain of 10 in 1997. "We expect to add more this year," he said.

And Illinois bankers are crowing about the state's gain last year of the new Bank One Corp.-Ohio's old Banc One Corp. plus First Chicago NBD Corp., which merged in October.

"This is the financial center of the Midwest and still very clearly a money-center state," said Jeffrey Rodman, president of the Illinois Bankers Association.

Mr. Rodman said he is working hard to ensure that the Illinois bank charter will stay competitive with those of neighboring states vying for bank headquarters.

As for the slip in rankings through September, he said he is losing no sleep over them.

"It's important," he said, "but it would be easy to make too much out of it."

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