More analysts are likely to raise their recommendations and earnings estimates for Capital One Financial Corp. as the stock rockets into the stratosphere.

The major credit card company's shares have surged 36.9% in the last week, and gained 44.1% since early January.

In the last three months, three large brokerage firms have upgraded the company's stock to "buy" or "strong buy." CIBC Oppenheimer; Keefe, Bruyette & Woods; and Bear, Stearns Inc. have lifted their recommendations. Last Thursday, Merrill Lynch & Co. raised the company's 1998 target price to $113, and its 1998 earnings estimates to a whopping $3.75-the highest estimate on the Street.

Capital One's shares dipped on Friday, but quickly rebounded Monday while other financial shares languished.

"It rarely goes down," said Steven Eisman, a finance company analyst at CIBC Oppenheimer. "Even in a down market."

Some market experts maintain that the stock's rise comes from investors' expectations that the Church Falls, Va., company will exceed analysts' consensus earnings estimates in the first quarter.

According to First Data Corp. in Boston, 19 analysts have arrived at a consensus earnings per share estimate of $3.44 for 1998.

"Everybody is looking for companies that have a chance to beat numbers this quarter," said bank analyst Mark Alpert of BT Alex. Brown. "Capital One had a much stronger fourth quarter because they had a large reserve." Mr. Alpert pointed out that the company also charges a lot of late fees, and that investors think the company will deliver another strong quarter.

Bank analyst Michael L. Granger of Fox-Pitt, Kelton pointed out that the trends leading to the "blowout" fourth quarter are likely to continue into the first.

"New accounts continue to be extremely strong," said Mr. Granger. "They added 1.1 million new accounts in the fourth quarter, and it sounds like it will be just as strong in the first."

Mr. Granger added that the loss trends and strong fee income also continue to remain vigorous.

The company also displays a deft hand with secured card lending, Mr. Granger said. He said it caters to "people with impaired credit," and uses its database to price them properly. He said, "They are also selling additional services with these products."

Capital One's performance was not always this strong, according to Mr. Eisman of CIBC Oppenheimer. "In the second quarter last year, delinquencies went down, but chargeoffs did not. There was also a shortfall in earnings," said Mr Eisman. At the time, the company "started to back off their 20% growth rate."

After Capital One raised its fees and refocused its efforts, the stock rose, Mr. Eisman said. But "the shares really surged after the COO (Nigel Morris) and CEO (Richard Fairbanks) announced that they were foregoing their base salary and bonuses for the next three years in exchange for stock options that vest at $84."

Management made the announcement in the company's 8k, which was filed Jan. 14.

"Managers are now in line with the shareholders' interest, and ever since that announcement, the stock has taken off like a rocketship," Mr. Eisman said.

The stock could, however, run out steam, some noted. Bank analyst David M. West of Davenport & Co., Richmond, Va., said, "The credit card environment is not going to get terribly worse. However, historically the second quarter is weak. People run up big bills at the end up the year, the binge catches them early next year, and chargeoffs come in the second quarter."

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