Conseco Inc.'s earnings more than doubled in the fourth quarter, boosted in part by increased volume in its lending division.

The Carmel, Ind., company earned $292.8 million, up 115% from the fourth quarter of 1997. Earnings per share rose 123%, to 89 cents.

The company's finance volume increased 37%, to $5.9 billion. Manufactured housing volume grew 12%, mortgage services 53%, consumer and credit card volume 96%, and commercial lending 35%, the company said.

The insurance giant is trying to become a full-fledged financial services company catering to less-affluent consumers. To that end last year it bought Green Tree Financial Corp., a leading manufactured housing lender.

"By adding a high-growth consumer lending arm ... we reinvented Conseco as a leading financial services company serving the needs of Middle America," said chief executive officer Stephen C. Hilbert in a statement.

But the road to diversification has been rocky for Conseco. When the Green Tree deal closed, the company announced a $498 million writedown, in part because of a reevaluation of Green Tree.

Faster-than-expected prepayments caused Green Tree-among other specialty lenders-to reevaluate the subordinated securities they retain from their securitizations. Green Tree and others used a controversial type of accounting, known as gain-on-sale, which lets companies book profits before they are received.

Conseco's stock price at the close of trading Tuesday was down about 40% since the deal's announcement last April. The stock rose 4%, to $31 a share, in midday trading Wednesday after the fourth-quarter results were announced.

The financial market crisis of last summer and fall made it difficult for lenders like Green Tree to sell asset-backed securities. Nevertheless, Conseco's loan securitization volume rose 19% in the quarter, to $3.9 billion, and the company said it completed all the securitizations planned for the period.

Still, the company said, it elected to retain $364.6 million of securities "until market conditions improve."

It also shifted to the "cash-out" method of accounting, which prohibits it from forecasting profits. Acting on advice from the Financial Accounting Standards Board, Conseco restated past earnings as if the company had always used the new method.

The restatement required $134.7 million of charges for the first half of 1998, 1997, and prior years.

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