A host of southeastern banks reported fourth-quarter earnings broadly in line with expectations as stringent cost control and strong loan growth helped overcome the drag of merger-related expenses.

"The pattern for these banks has been that everyone has been eking past by a few pennies per share, just a little better than expected," said analyst Henry J. Coffey Jr., with J.C. Bradford & Co.

Southern National Corp., based in Winston-Salem, N.C., earned $70.9 million in the quarter, up 12% from $62.6 million a year earlier.

For the full year, the bank's net income of $178.1 million fell 25% from $236.9 million in 1994 due to $76.3 million of after-tax charges related to the merger of Southern National and BB&T Financial Corp.

Excluding the charges, net income would have gained 7.4% last year.

"From a fundamentals perspective, it looks like the merger is working out nicely," said analyst George A. Bicher, with Alex. Brown & Sons.

Southern National's net interest margin improved 12 basis points from the third quarter to 4.07%, as the $20.5 billion-asset bank continues to reduce its derivatives portfolio and benefits from an easing of deposit pricing pressure.

Memphis-based Union Planters Corp. earned $25.3 million in the fourth quarter, compared with a $14.6 million loss in the year-earlier quarter, when the bank took charges related to the acquisition of a bank in Mississippi. Before the charges, the bank earned a positive $30.7 million in the 1994 fourth quarter.

Fourth-quarter 1995 earnings were also affected by merger-related charges, this time involving a bank in Missouri, Capital Bancorp. Excluding those charges, Union Planters would have earned $34.5 million, topping the year-earlier $30.7 million pre-charge net.

One problem reported by Union Planters had nothing to do with Capital Bancorp.: a deterioration in its credit card portfolio, which grew rapidly last year to $387 million from $264 million at yearend 1994.

Of the $12.9 million of chargeoffs taken in the fourth quarter, $5 million came from credit cards, according to chief financial officer Jack W. Parker. "We've had a lot of growth in that area, so we have seen higher delinquencies and chargeoffs," he said.

Mr. Parker pointed out that credit cards constitute only 5% of Union Planters' $7.1 billion loan portfolio. Union Planters has $11.3 billion of assets.

Earnings at First American Corp., Nashville, also reflected acquisitions. First American, which has $9.7 billion of assets, took $7.5 million of charges related to the purchase of Heritage Federal Bancshares, reducing fourth-quarter net to $24.3 million, 5% less than the year-earlier period.

Excluding the Heritage acquisition, First American earned $31.8 million, a 25% gain from the fourth quarter 1994.

Compass Bancshares, Birmingham, reported fourth-quarter net of $29.2 million, up 8% from $27 million a year earlier. Compass, with assets of $10.3 billion, reported strong loan growth and fee income.

But the real driver for Compass, said Dean Witter analyst Anthony R. Davis, was a minimal level of net chargeoffs and a low loan-loss provision - $2.3 million in both cases. The chargeoffs and provision also both declined from the third quarter, while reserve coverage of nonperforming assets remained a sturdy 491%.

"The key for this company is that their credit quality is outstanding," Mr. Davis said. "I think they're going to be one of only two or three banks in our coverage universe whose chargeoffs went down."

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