Chase Manhattan Bank finally joined the credit card rate-cutting party, announcing on Tuesday that qualifying customers would pay as little as 14.4%.

In September, the bank will offer about half of its 13 million card accounts a new variable rate that now stands at 16.4% for standard accounts. In months when the balance exceeds $2,500, holders of variable-rate cards will pay 14.4%.

"We have a strategy that says we will build balances by getting more business from the customers we have," said Thomas C. Lynch, executive vice president in charge of Chase's credit card business.

Debt Consolidation

The price break on high balances is designed to encourage consumers to consolidate their card debt with Chase.

Chase is the last of the five top bank card issuers to cut interest rates.

The new prices will be applied immediately to all existing purchase balances carried by qualified cardholders. That differentiates Chase from others, including industry leader Citibank, whose best rates apply only on balances accumulated after a preset date.

"Chase customers will have immediate relief from high interest rates," said Robert M& Kinley, president of RAM Research USA, the Frederick, Md.-based publisher of the Cardtrak newsletter. "Citi had gotten some criticism on its policy."

Deal Terms

To qualify for a Chase variable rate, customers need to have owned their cards for 12 months, have made timely payments, and have kept within their credit limits.

Qualified gold-card holders will be offered a variable rate at 15.4%, which drops to 13.4% for balances exceeding $3,500.

Standard variable-rate cards carry a $20 annual fee; gold variable cards $50.

"It's definitely a retention strategy oriented toward their good credits," Anne M. Moore, president of Synergistics Research Corp. in Atlanta, said of the Chase announcement. "It's pretty stringent in its balance requirements and its payment performance." She called it a "smart strategy."

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