SAN FRANCISCO - Expense control and solid lending helped boost first- quarter earnings at two big West Coast banks that reported results Monday, but a large California thrift suffered a decline because of rising interest rates.

First Interstate Bancorp, Los Angeles, posted a 15.2% rise in first- quarter net income, to $212 million. Profits at U.S. Bancorp, Portland, Ore., shot up nearly 66%, to $66 million.

"We feel very, very good about our financial performance for the quarter," said First Interstate president and chief executive William E.B. Siart.

Loans at the $57 billion-asset institution totaled $35.1 billion at March 31, $8 billion more than a year earlier.

Mr. Siart said acquisitions of banks and thrifts accounted for $5.8 billion of the loan growth. Strong economic conditions also helped, as nonperforming assets dropped 20%, to $262 million.

Mr. Siart added that First Interstate continues to be interested in buying banks and thrifts in the West. But he warned that good bargains are getting harder to find.

"There aren't many sellers these days of the type we're interested in," Mr. Siart said.

On the expense front, First Interstate is enjoying the first fruits of a difficult cost-cutting campaign begun last year, aimed at trimming payrolls and reducing computer expenses.

Mr. Siart said First Interstate has made only about a fifth of the cost reductions planned, even though the bank is halfway through the 30 months it allotted for the project. But these cost cuts helped reduce to 60.4% the percentage of First Interstate's first-quarter revenues consumed by noninterest expenses. At the end of 1994, the efficiency ratio stood at 61.3%.

Cost cutting was also a key part of the earnings story at U.S. Bancorp. In March of last year, the $21.4 billion-asset institution announced a brutal cost-cutting campaign that resulted in a 23% drop in full-time employees, to 9,780 by the end of this year's first quarter.

This helped cut noninterest expenses to $225 million, $30 million below the comparable figure for last year. Net interest income, meanwhile, rose 8.5% to $247 million.

"The financial results in first quarter 1995 show we are beginning to experience success from the reshaping of our company over the last year," said U.S. Bancorp chairman Gerry Cameron.

The earnings story was markedly different at a leading California thrift, Golden West Financial Corp. The Oakland-based thrift reported net income was down 22%, to $50.9 million.

Herbert M. Sandler, chairman and chief executive of the $33.6 billion- asset institution, attributed the drop to interest rate hikes. Golden West continued to make strong sales of its main product, adjustable-rate mortgages, booking $1.8 billion of new loans, compared with $1.2 billion of new loans in the same period last year.

But most of the adjustable-rate mortgages are tied to an index that lags behind increases in prevailing interest rates. As a result, Golden West's net interest income declined 12%, to $166 million.

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