Associates First Capital Corp. reported an 18% increase in first-quarter earnings from a year ago, to $281 million.

The finance company, which was recently spun off from Ford Motor Co., said the quarter was its best ever.

Managed assets totaled $63.6 billion on March 31, a 23% increase from 1997.

The increase was fueled mainly by overseas acquisitions, said chief executive Keith Hughes. Associates purchased $3 billion in international assets during the quarter, including Japan's DIC Finance, a 600-branch addition.

The company also purchased Beneficial Corp.'s Canadian operations.

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