Metris Cos. is in line for independence from Fingerhut Cos. thanks to a spinoff plan announced last week.

Metris markets financial services to low- and middle-income people. The spinoff plan would protect Fingerhut from credit risk while letting Metris keep growing fast, the companies said.

The unit has drained cash from the catalogue retailer, which created it in 1993. Metris "requires huge amounts of capital to fund the growth it is capable of," said Gerald Knight, senior vice president of finance at Minneapolis-based Fingerhut.

His company applied to the Internal Revenue Service for a ruling on a tax-free distribution of its 83% interest in Metris, formerly Fingerhut Financial Services. The initial public stock offering was made one year ago.

Mr. Knight said it was "purely coincidental" that Fingerhut is moving to spin off Metris soon after Metris acquired two card portfolios totaling about $750 million.

Metris, based in St. Louis Park, Minn., managed $2.1 billion of card receivables at midyear. Receivables grew 197% last year and on June 30 were up 99% from mid-1996.

There is some concern about Metris' ability to manage the credit quality of the marginal accounts it attracts. Its chargeoff rate-about 10%-is nearly double the bank card industry average.

Ronald N. Zebeck, Metris' chief executive officer, said his company's products are priced appropriately for the higher risk.

Nearly 40% of Metris' customers come from Fingerhut's data base of 30 million catalogue shoppers. The data base, which Metris regards as a competitive advantage, would still be available to the card marketer under a five-year contract. Metris would continue to pay a fee for each name it gets from Fingerhut.

Mr. Zebeck said he expects operating costs to rise at Metris when it is fully independent, but "there aren't too many other negatives," he said.

Metris executives had "hoped for the spinoff," said Moshe Orenbuch, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. "Most companies would rather control their own destiny," he said.

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