Though growth slowed a bit, credit card companies are still expected to report solid profits for the first quarter.

The slower growth was attributable to several factors, including company-specific reductions in commitments to the credit card business, pricing changes, and the use of tighter credit screens as Visa and MasterCard issuers attempt to curtail delinquencies and chargeoffs.

For the third year in a row, credit losses continued to mount, said Goldman Sachs & Co. analyst Robert Hottensen.

Already, Advanta Corp. has preannounced a rise in chargeoffs that will force the company to post a first-quarter loss, so analysts don't expect any surprises there.

Mr. Hottensen figures the chargeoff rate for specialty credit card companies was around 5% in the first quarter, with a high of more than 6% at Advanta and a low of 3.7% at MBNA Corp.

Analysts said they expected chargeoffs to continue to rise modestly through the second and third quarters.

But Morgan Stanley & Co. analyst Jennifer Oliver Martin said the larger credit card companies, including American Express Co., MBNA, and Capital One Financial Corp., "shouldn't be confused with the sector averages because their asset quality is stronger than the sector as a whole."

She expects that their first-quarter performance "will really demonstrate to the market that recent fears about sustained earnings, growth, and future profits are unfounded."

Ms. Martin said the bigger companies are generally gaining market share from smaller ones because of continued marketing efforts and technology spending.

She also said some widening of margins and increased fees, such as late charges, should help offset increases in chargeoffs.

PaineWebber Inc. analyst Gary Gordon said the real fix to the problem of delinquencies and chargeoffs is a major pullback in solicitations-something he doesn't see happening any time soon.

Indeed, credit card companies have become increasingly tenacious in their marketing strategies, especially in offering teaser rates as low as 5.9%. Part of the reason for the marketing blitz, Mr. Gordon said, is that credit card companies aren't the only ones lending. "Subprime mortgage lenders are aggressive in trying to get people to refinance credit card debt into mortgage debt. It's a real battle for the consumer," he said.

Aside from Advanta, most credit card companies should see double-digit earnings growth for the quarter ended March 31.

Advanta, based in Spring House, Pa., said in March that its first- quarter loss would total about $20 million, or 44 cents a share, compared with earnings of $41 million, or 91 cents a share, a year ago.

The company also said its 1997 profits will be about $1.50 a share, compared with $3.89 in 1996.

MBNA reported first-quarter earnings Wednesday of 34 cents a share, in line with First Call's estimate and a stellar 31% rise over year-ago earnings of 26 cents.

First USA Inc. is seen earning 58 cents a share for its fiscal third quarter ended March, compared with 48 cents in the year-ago quarter, based on a 2-for-1 stock split.

Wall Street's earnings consensus for Capital One is 63 cents a share, a respectable gain of 10.5% over last year's 57 cents a share.

Associates First Capital Corp. should post earnings of 68 cents a share, analysts concluded, compared with year-ago earnings of 56 cents.

Finally, American Express is seen earning 92 cents a share for the first quarter, compared with 80 cents a year ago. Analysts noted that unlike monoline banks, whose sole business is to issue credit cards, American Express has a broad family of products.

"There's not a lot of revolving credit driving earnings" at American Express, said Mr. Hottensen. He called the business a supplementary, but important, area to the company.

Nevertheless, he said American Express' growth in the revolving credit business is in line with its industry peers.

Over all, "they have been reporting surprise-free, 15% bottom-line growth, and we expect that to continue," Mr. Hottensen said.

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