Turning in a solid performance in loan and net interest margin growth, Fleet Financial Group led a bevy of northeastern banks that reported first- quarter earnings Wednesday.

Providence, R.I.-based Fleet, which has $47.8 billion in assets, posted a 21% gain, to $164 million. Chief financial officer Eugene McQuade credited an 8% jump in loan volume and an improvement in the net interest margin.

Wall Street bank analysts said they were relieved by Fleet's report. "With this company, you just never know," said George Bicher of Alex. Brown & Sons. "They're a disappointment, generally, on the revenue side. They aren't going to set the world on fire, (but) they're getting loan growth which is sustainable."

Mr. Bicher pointed out that Fleet's loan growth was even more impressive considering the lackluster performances reported by other northeastern banks, most notably PNC, First Fidelity, and CoreStates. "Fleet turned out to be where you hoped they'd be."

Sally Pope Davis of Goldman, Sachs & Co. said Fleet's loan growth may be a sign that the New England economy is starting to make a comeback. "This is the first quarter in seven quarters that they had sequential increases in net interest income," she said.

Ms. Davis also noted that Fleet's reputation for laying people off to keep expenses down remains intact. "Even though they added 1,264 people with the acquisitions they closed this quarter (NBB Bancorp and Plaza Home Mortgage Corp.), their net head count was only up 73."

And, indeed, the bank's efficiency ratio, expenses as a percentage of revenues, was 61.8%, up only marginally from the fourth quarter's 61.2% and impressively ahead of the 65% reported in last year's first quarter.

Meanwhile, results at Shawmut National Corp., which is soon to be swallowed up by Fleet, were hurt by a $36.9 million pretax merger charge related to severance benefits. Shawmut earned $62.6 million, down 19%.

Princeton, N.J.-based UJB Financial Corp. reported a whopping 40% gain in net income, to $40 million. Chairman and chief executive T. Joseph Semrod credited loan growth of 9.7% and an improved asset mix. +++ Fleet Financial Group Providence, R.I. Dollar amounts in millions (except per share) First Quarter 1Q95 1Q94 Net income $164.1 $135.6 Per share 1.02 0.79 ROA 1.43% 1.13% ROE 19.78% 15.32% Net interest margin 4.83% 4.74% Net interest income 497.2 512.4 Noninterest income 308.3 294.6 Noninterest expense 497.7 549.5 Loss provision 20.2 22.4 Net chargeoffs 35.3 31.9 Balance Sheet 3/31/95 3/31/94 Assets $47,814.0 $47,438.0 Deposits 32,833.9 31,333.7 Loans 29,498.4 26,014.6 Reserve/nonp. loans 197.95% 189.50% Nonperf. loans/loans 1.65% 2.00% Nonperf. assets/assets 1.21% 1.29% Nonperf. assets/

loans + OREO 1.95% 2.35% Leverage cap. ratio 7.5% 7.3% Tier 1 cap. ratio 9.7% 11.9% Tier 1+2 cap. ratio 13.8% 16.8% ===

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