Two of the most prominent credit card cobranding programs are coming unraveled.

Citibank and Ford Motor Co. said Monday they were discontinuing their partnership.

The announcement coincided with a scaling back of the General Motors MasterCard program, which has been viewed as one of the most successful examples of an alliance between a consumer marketer and a credit card issuer - in this case a Household International subsidiary.

The retreats are the strongest indications to date that cobranding, a spur to credit card growth in the early 1990s, is losing its luster. As five-year deals like Ford's with Citibank are coming up for renewal, partners are reassessing their terms and trying to mitigate the heavy expenses of customer rewards.

Ford said the Citibank card does not fit in with a strategy geared to promoting individual car brands.

The Citicorp subsidiary, the biggest Visa and MasterCard issuer, began working with Ford in early 1993 and had been crediting rebate points to several million cardholders. The rebate program will end next January and customers will have up to five years to redeem the points.

Monday also marked the end of General Motors' tie-ins with marketing partners MCI, Mobil Oil, and Mariott Hotels. GM's 11 million cardholders may no longer earn points by using their cards with those organizations.

In September, GM ended its gold card premium differential, halving the maximum rebate credit to $500 a year and $3,500 over seven years - the same terms offered on standard GM cards.

Such moves are becoming common. AT&T Universal Card Services Co. revised its rebate system over the last two years and encourages cardholders to cash in their benefits early. In 1996, M&T Bank of Buffalo halted a Visa program with Giant Food Inc. after the deal turned into a financial disaster for the bank.

"The economics of the card business have changed dramatically in the last 18 months," said Donald M. Berman, president of Cardholder Management Services, Plainview, N.Y.

Citibank pulled the plug on another cobranded program, with Apple Computer Inc., last September. The bank has one remaining cobrand, the American Airlines AAdvantage card, a 10-year-old Visa program that still yields considerable annual fee income.

Citibank spokeswoman Maria Mendler said the bank did not expect the airline card, issued in about a dozen countries, to change.

She said Citibank wants to retain its Ford customers and is exploring other benefits that might appeal to them.

Citibank's Ford partnership never generated the growth of Household's with General Motors. Citibank said 80% of the Ford portfolio was comprised of Citibank customers, suggesting that Citibank did not add a lot of new business.

RAM Research Corp., Frederick, Md., estimated there were about six million Citibank-Ford cardholders, compared with General Motors' 11 million.

The GM and Ford cards are the only cobrands that offer 5% rebates on general purchases, said Dennis Shea, managing director of Auriemma Consulting Group, Westbury, N.Y. Typically, rebates are limited to 1% and 2% of purchases.

"Because the value is so rich for the customer," more of the burden is falling on the auto manufacturer, said Mr. Shea.

According to an industry source, Ford Motor Credit Corp., the manufacturer's captive finance company, is interested in producing a new rebate card of its own that would be more aligned with current marketing strategies.

Ford spokeswoman Della Dipietro said she was unaware of such plans by the credit affiliate but said it could be under consideration.

Anita Boomstein, a lawyer at the New York firm Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, said she was "aware of other credit arms of car companies doing exactly what Ford may be considering."

A spokesman for General Motors said its corporate partnership program, called the GM Card Accelerated Earnings Network, was unpopular. Only 2% of all the rebates accumulated in 1996 were generated from purchases from the partners.

Cardholders could receive a 10% rebate on purchases at Mobil, Marriott, and MCI, but the rebate "lacked broad card member appeal," the spokesman said.

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