Credit card analyst Susan L. Roth wants to know what consumers are earning before she projects the earnings of the companies she covers.

As the card industry continues to reel from record-level chargeoffs and delinquencies, the 32-year-old Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette analyst said she has sharpened her focus on consumer economics.

"Unemployment used to be the most important indicator, but now I rely more heavily on personal income growth as the determinant factor of consumers ability to borrow and repay," said Ms. Roth.

Her strategy for predicting the earnings of specialized card companies - Advanta Corp., Capital One Financial, First USA Inc., and MBNA Corp. - has paid off.

Ms. Roth, who spent most of the year at Bear, Stearns & Co., ranked first among analysts covering credit card companies in American Banker's second annual Wall Street Sharpshooter survey, conducted by First Call Corp.

Paul Paquin, vice president in investor relations for Capital One, called Ms. Roth a "digger."

"She really wants to understand the reasons changes are taking place in various companies and the industry," he said. Although Ms. Roth's recommendations earlier in the year for Capital One included a "hold," Mr. Paquin believes her reasoning has been fair. Eventually, Ms. Roth changed her recommendation to "attractive," and then to "buy."

"She was very cautious with regard to the industry earlier in the year," Mr. Paquin said.

Ms. Roth, who has been watching the card industry since 1992, believes credit losses will increase through the first half of next year.

Card issuers who will continue to gain market share in this environment, as did the four card specialists, are low-cost providers, said Ms. Roth. She expects the winners in the card business to grow between 15% and 20% annually.

Shares of the credit card companies have lagged behind other financials during the year, but Ms. Roth said her confidence in them never wavered.

"These companies have successfully met their expectations each and every quarter since they have been public. What investors don't always appreciate is that one variable alone does not tell the whole story," she said.

Ms. Roth's estimate for MBNA was the best of the analysts surveyed.

MBNA, she said, has not been forced to cut costs because of its strong receivables growth. In the third quarter, MBNA grew 30% to $34.7 billion in managed loans.

Ms. Roth's estimate of Advanta's earnings was second best among the analysts surveyed. She said credit losses were higher than she had anticipated.

"I derived my estimate from conversations with management, and have been confident that Advanta could deliver a 20% earnings gain in 1996, but the quality of the earnings has been compromised by greater credit losses and a higher level of spending than what we would have expected," she said.

Ms. Roth began her career as an analyst in 1991 at Montgomery Securities, after graduating from Harvard Business School. The Youngstown, Ohio, native has had stints at Kidder Peabody and at Bear, Stearns. Last month she joined Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

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