Earnings rose in the third quarter at the card units of American Express Co. and Dean Witter, Discover & Co. - but they still suffer high levels of credit card losses.

Profits in the American Express Travel Related Services unit rose 8.8% from a year earlier to $323 million. Dean Witter Credit Services earnings rose 7%, to $120 million.

Card-related loss rates at both New York-based companies remained above 5% of outstandings. At American Express the rate dropped slightly, from 5.2% in the second quarter to 5.1%; Dean Witter's was unchanged at 5.4%.

Some analysts see improvements in the elevated levels of card account chargeoffs and delinquencies, but losses above 5% are still considered high.

Philip J. Purcell, chairman and chief executive of Dean Witter, said the steps the company took in July to offset the costs of rising writeoffs are expected to have greater impact in the fourth quarter.

Those measures included higher over-the-limit fees, tighter terms on late fees, and selective repricing of delinquent accounts.

Dean Witter increased its loan-loss provisions by 65%, to $488.7 million, while American Express reduced its provision 10%, to $341 million, according to analyst David B. Hilder of Morgan Stanley.

American Express, the flagship charge card, said the reason for its decline was a general improvement in credit quality.

Delinquencies - the percentage of receivables 90 days past due - were 3.6%, the same as in the comparable 1995 period. Credit card accounts delinquent at least 30 days declined to 3.2% from 3.5% a year before.

American Express also saw a 12% increase in billed business to $45.9 million, as well as a 7.8% increase in cards in force, to 40.3 million.

Some analysts questioned the adequacy of American Express' loan-loss provision. PaineWebber analyst Gary J. Gordon believes American Express did not set aside enough and will likely have to pay for its mistake in the near future.

Dean Witter said total card accounts reached 38.4 million, up 11% over the most recent 12 months. Managed loans were up 20% to $33.8 billion.

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