Analysts said Mercury Finance Co.'s repeated delays in releasing its 1996 annual report could mean the accounting irregularities that plunged the company into financial crisis in January were known at the highest levels of management.

The company's annual report, originally scheduled for release in April, still has not been released. Bradley S. Vallem, assistant vice president and treasurer, said he hoped the report would be released this week.

"We're trying to get all questions answered," Mr. Vallem said. "We want to support any financial statements we make. There are still questions between the auditors and the SEC about adjustments before 1996 that should be made."

The full story may never be known. Former controller James A. Doyle, 49, who could not be found days before Mercury's financial crisis began, died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack, a spokesman for the company said.

Thomas Kmiotek, an analyst at Duff & Phelps Credit Rating Co., said Mr. Doyle was a "two- to three-pack-per-day smoker" who "didn't look well" even before he began cooperating with federal authorities investigating Mercury five months ago.

People familiar with the situation say the Mercury board has seen the numbers prepared by the company's new auditor, Arthur Andersen & Co. But the new numbers are so different from the ones reached by the company's prior accountant, KPMG Peat Marwick, that the board is still trying to figure out the real story.

"This was no ordinary accounting job that had to be done," said a person close to Mercury. The activities were "deep and went on for years, and Mercury has so many branches. The auditors had to go to every branch and start from the ground up."

In January, Mercury rocked the subprime auto lending world when it disclosed that unauthorized accounting entries had caused the company to overstate earnings for four consecutive years. Since then, more than $2 billion of market value has evaporated, and Mercury has defaulted on about $430 million of investment-grade commercial paper.

Some analysts think the fact the audit has taken longer than expected suggests the irregularities were known at the highest levels at Mercury. They reason that if Mr. Doyle, Mercury's controller, were solely responsible, then senior executives could have assisted auditors in their investigation.

A significant part of the difficulty, analysts said, may lie in the fact that Mercury kept track of loans on note cards until switching to computers only a year ago.

Sources said the company is being extraordinarily careful with the annual report but that it would surely provide additional grist for the lawsuits already filed by shareholders and noteholders against Mercury and KPMG Peat Marwick.

But in the meantime, said Fox-Pitt Kelton analyst Reilly Tierney, formerly of Duff & Phelps, creditors are lying low, hoping that a less- aggressive stance would prove helpful in the long run.

"Creditors are confident they'll be repaid, because there probably will be enough equity at Mercury to cover the debt," he said. "So people are being patient in order to not aggravate the situation."

But many analysts and investment bankers said they believe paying the creditors will suck the life out of Mercury. It is difficult to imagine the company raising funds through the capital markets again, they said. Mercury has said that Arthur Andersen, the company's auditor, will question in its report whether Mercury can continue, and investment bankers said there is little of value to a buyer except Mercury's network of branch offices. The company has already sold its insurance subsidiary.

BankAmerica Corp. recently extended its $50 million loan so Mercury can sustain its operations, but Mercury had to pledge all its assets to get the loan, Mr. Tierney said. Another analyst said BankAmerica would renew the loan again only if it gets waivers from all existing creditors.

Mercury's Mr. Vallem said the company expects reported first-quarter earnings and shareholder equity will follow projections when they are released next month. Second-quarter earnings should come out in August, he said.

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