A gain in noninterest income boosted fourth-quarter earnings 13% at First Union Corp. on Thursday, to $331.3 million. Meanwhile, Wachovia Corp. experienced a 3% improvement, to $146.2 million, despite weakness in its credit card portfolio.

The results were well within Wall Street expectations, with strong revenue growth overcoming the drag of shrinking net interest margins and rising expenses.

First Union earned $1.19 a share, restated for the just-completed acquisition of First Fidelity Bancorp. Since the current quarter included a $73 million after-tax merger-related restructuring charge and other one- time items, analysts preferred to focus on the Charlotte, N.C.-based company's core operating earnings of $1.45 a share.

"That's the number you look at in terms of gauging what they'll do in 1996," said Brent B. Erensel of UBS Securities. "If you look at that and the strength in the revenue items, and factor in some modest cost cutting from First Fidelity, you can easily get to a $6.30-a-share number for the full year 1996."

First Union had predicted it would earn $6.31 a share this year when it announced the acquisition of First Fidelity last June.

Chief financial officer Robert T. Atwood reiterated during a conference call Thursday that First Union remained "very comfortable" with its $6.31- a-share estimate, despite some economic weakness related to corporate layoffs in New Jersey, the heart of the old First Fidelity franchise.

First Union's noninterest income gains were particularly impressive, up 30% to $545 million. Excluding securities transactions, that gain of 18% was attributed to good performance from the capital markets and capital management groups.

First Union's loan-loss provision rose 61%, to $64.5 million, but fell well short of the $107.2 million of net chargeoffs. Chief credit officer Malcolm T. Murray Jr. said First Union believed its reserve coverage - 233% of nonperforming loans - was more than adequate.

"Both First Union and First Fidelity, and the other companies that merged into First Union, brought with them very high reserves. Frankly, we're just trying to come up with the right number over time," Mr. Murray said.

Wachovia, which is based in Winston-Salem, N.C., earned 85 cents a share, 2 cents shy of First Call estimates due to slightly higher-than- expected expenses (up 11% to $315 million) and a larger loan-loss provision, up 55% to $30 million.

"The quarter was a bit light,' said Catherine L. Murray, with J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. "The business fundamentals were basically as expected, but the operating expense line continues to creep up."

Wachovia chief financial officer Robert S. McCoy Jr. said the bank is spending heavily on consulting help and technology to upgrade its branch automation, central information file, and performance measurement systems.

Mr. McCoy said the jump in provisioning at the bank was mostly related to credit card delinquencies, which had been rising gradually throughout 1995.

"It was exactly in line with what we anticipated and what we projected," Mr. McCoy said. "We don't worry about it. We think it's well under control."

Wachovia reported robust 13% loan growth for the year, led by commercial and real estate credits. Credit card outstandings, a hot category earlier in the year, grew less strongly toward the end of the year, according to Mr. McCoy.

For the full year, Wachovia's earnings gained 12%, to $602.5 million. First Union earned $1.4 billion, for a 9% gain.

Elsewhere in the Southeast, Hibernia Corp. reported fourth-quarter earnings of $34.8 million, an 85% gain. For the full year, Hibernia, which is based in New Orleans, earned $123.9 million, up 30% from $95 million in 1994.

Hibernia, which has $7.2 billion of assets, attributed its 1995 gains to an improved net interest margin, increased fee income, and a drop in expenses.

Reporting earlier in the week, Synovus Financial Corp., Columbus, Ga., said Wednesday that it earned $33.6 million in the fourth quarter, up 54.6% from a year earlier. The $7.9 billion-asset bank said it earned $114.6 million for the full year, up 28%. +++ First Union Corp. Charlotte Dollar amounts in millions (except per share) Fourth Quarter 4Q95 4Q94 Net income $331.3 $293.7 Per share 1.19 1.03 ROA 1.06% 1.25% ROE 15.13% 14.06% Net interest margin 4.20% 4.62% Net interest income 1,190.0 1,158.0 Noninterest income 545.3 417.8 Noninterest expense 1,042.8 976.6 Loss provision 64.5 40.0 Net chargeoffs 107.2 81.1 Year to Date 1995 1994 Net income $1,403.8 $1,289.1 Per share 5.04 4.58 ROA 1.21% 1.29% ROE 16.69% 16.38% Net interest margin 4.46% 4.75% Net interest income 4,740.0 4,559.0 Noninterest income 1,847.4 1,565.7 Noninterest expense 3,998.0 3,746.9 Loss provision 220.0 179.0 Net chargeoffs 339.0 281.9 Balance Sheet 12/31/95 12/31/94 Assets $131,880.0 $113,529.0 Deposits 122,837.0 105,255.0 Loans 89,055.0 76,253.0 Reserve/nonp. loans 233% 248% Nonperf. loans/loans 0.98% 1.14% Nonperf. assets/assets 0.63% 0.78% Nonperf. assets/loans + OREO 0.91% 1.14% Leverage cap. ratio 5.49% 6.26% Tier 1 cap. ratio 6.51% 8.06% Tier 1+2 cap. ratio 10.36% 12.57% Wachovia Corp. Winston-Salem, N.C.

Dollar amounts in millions (except per share) Fourth Quarter 4Q95 4Q94 Net income $146.2 $142.1 Per share 0.85 0.82 ROA 1.35% 1.49% ROE 16.36% 17.84% Net interest margin 4.01% 4.37% Net interest income 391.3 371.5 Noninterest income 188.8 156.8 Noninterest expense 315.1 282.5 Loss provision 30.2 19.5 Net chargeoffs 30.0 19.4 Year to Date 1995 1994 Net income $602.5 $539.1 Per share 3.49 3.12 ROA 1.45% 1.46% ROE 17.67% 17.41% Net interest margin 4.16% 4.34% Net interest income 1,539.4 1,424.1 Noninterest income 735.6 607.8 Noninterest expense 1,203.6 1,098.4 Loss provision 103.8 71.8 Net chargeoffs 101.1 70.4 Balance Sheet 12/31/95 12/31/94 Assets $44,981.0 $39,188.0 Deposits 26,369.0 23,069.0 Loans 29,261.0 25,891.0 Reserve/nonp. loans 763% 516% Nonperf. loans/loans 0.18% 0.30% Nonperf. assets/assets 0.24% 0.39% Nonperf. assets/loans + OREO NA NA Leverage cap. ratio 8.37% 8.63% Tier 1 cap. ratio 9.60% 9.30% Tier 1+2 cap. ratio 13.80% 12.70% ===

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