PNC Bank Corp. said it is leaving the credit card business, selling its 3.3 million accounts to MBNA Corp.

PNC will get a 15% premium on its $2.9 billion of card receivables and two operations centers.

The transaction, expected to close in the first quarter, includes PNC's affinity accounts with AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association.

MBNA of Wilmington, Del., is the third-largest credit card issuer, with $46 billion of loans outstanding. Chief executive officer Charles Cawley characterized the deal as a "unique opportunity" because MBNA will be able to market cards to AAA's 36 million customers.

PNC-which has been selling pieces of its portfolio-said the time was ripe to bow out of the credit card business and pursue better returns in other business lines.

"It's a strategic investment decision, and it reflects a commitment to creating maximum value for shareholders," said Jonathan Williams, a spokesman for Pittsburgh-based PNC.

"While we have made tremendous achievements as an issuer, it is clear the industry is becoming dominated by a couple of scale-driven credit card companies."

Also last week, PNC Bank Corp. chairman Thomas O'Brien endorsed analysts' earnings estimates for the fourth quarter and next year.

Analysts expect the $76 billion-asset banking company to earn 92 cents per share in the fourth quarter, and $3.80 to $3.90 per share next year. - Charles Keenan

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