Most specialized credit card companies posted solid first-quarter earnings despite the tremors caused last month when Advanta Corp. preannounced a $20 million loss.

Capital One Financial Corp., Dean Witter, Discover & Co., and MBNA Corp. attained double-digit earnings growth over the first quarter of 1996, while rising star Metris Cos. doubled net income.

Earnings of other card companies will be trickling in over the next two weeks. Providian Bancorp and First USA are expected to report this week, while American Express Co. is to report next week.

Rising chargeoff rates continue to trouble some analysts. They continued an across-the-board climb.

"This looks like the worst quarterly increase," said Gary Gordon, an analyst with PaineWebber. "I've been concerned about it for two years."

The industry average chargeoff rate could reach 75 basis points, Mr. Gordon said. "Every company is trying to figure out how to offset these losses without slowing growth."

Many card lenders have scaled back marketing budgets, which is a positive development, said Susan L. Roth, an analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

Metris, a subsidiary of Fingerhut Cos., tipped the scales with an 8.5% chargeoff rate. MBNA continues to be at the low end, 3.8%, up slightly from 3.3% a year earlier.

Capital One reported a 5.8% chargeoff rate, and Discover reported 7%.

Higher chargeoffs were partly to blame for Advanta's $19.8 million loss for the quarter. The 6.6% rate was more than double the 3.2% reported a year earlier.

The Spring House, Pa.-based credit company also pointed to a slowdown in borrowing by its best customers and a rise in bankruptcies as causes of the loss.

Advanta's loss was 43 cents a share. The company had net income of $41 million, or 91 cents a share, in the first quarter of 1996.

Advanta's woes added fuel to the debate over whether credit card companies are pushing too hard for new customers through low teaser rates and mailings to prospects with ever weaker credit standing.

While some analysts see dark clouds on the consumer debt horizon, others say Advanta's loss will not prove to be a bellwether.

"I don't think it means anything to the industry," said Moshe Orenbuch, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. "You never judge everybody by the lowest common denominator. It's a company-specific occurrence."

"Aside from Advanta," Ms. Roth said, "there are solid results across the board."

The profit machine continued to hum at Wilmington, Del.-based MBNA, the second-largest bank card issuer. Net income increased by 34%, to $123.9 million. The per-share figure of 34 cents was in line with the analysts' consensus published by First Call.

MBNA was not forced to reduce marketing activities and therefore gained some business at the expense of other companies that had to contend with losses, Ms. Roth said.

"MBNA is very, very strong all around," Mr. Orenbuch said. While there was a down-tick in credit quality, it was expected, he said. For the near future, Mr. Orenbuch remains bullish on the company.

He said it becomes harder and harder to grow at a 40% clip as a company gets larger, but MBNA has "defied that law every year I've covered them."

Mr. Orenbuch expects noncredit card operations will begin to affect income in the future. MBNA, for instance, has an insurance product that could prove a profitable sell to its customer list.

"They are an extraordinary marketing company," he said. "To the extent they put their minds and their checkbooks to it, I expect they'll be successful."

Capital One of Falls Church, Va., the ninth-largest bank credit card issuer, posted $42.5 million in income for the first quarter, a 12% increase over the 1996 period. The 60 cents per share was 3 cents below the analysts' consensus.

Building on a distinction it earned last year as the fastest growing card issuer, according to RAM Research Group, Metris posted $7.7 million in quarterly income.

Fingerhut's St. Louis Park, Minn., card unit said in a press release that it expects continued growth with the recent addition of a cobranded card with Bally Total Fitness and the purchase of a $40 million portfolio.

Metris' high chargeoff rate was in line with expectations and not a concern, Ms. Roth said. The company caters to the middle market and balances the risk with higher interest rates and fees, she said.

Dean Witter's Credit Services unit in Riverwoods, Ill., had net earnings of $146.2 million, up 18%. From its overall corporate results, including security operations, Dean Witter paid out 81 cents a share, exactly matching First Call's consensus.

Dean Witter's chargeoff rate spiked to 7% at the end of the first quarter, from 4.8% a year earlier.

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