Making an unusually early report of fourth-quarter earnings, the credit card issuer MBNA Corp. said Monday that its net income rose 27%, to $238.3 million.

A week ahead of when the biggest bank holding companies are expected to begin their earnings announcements, MBNA sought to call attention to its healthy growth and bottom line just days after credit analysts raised doubts about its financing of a credit card portfolio purchase from PNC Bank Corp.

Later on Monday, MBNA revealed its funding method: a 50 million-share, $1.2 billion common stock issue underwritten by Goldman, Sachs & Co.

MBNA's share price fell 81.25 cents to close at $24.

Bear, Stearns & Co. equity analyst David Hochstim said there was a purpose in all the timing. Having filed a shelf registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission, MBNA was able to issue the new shares, which would bring the total to 801.8 million on Thursday, the closing date.

"They have positioned themselves to maintain a high rate of growth and take advantage of further industry consolidation," Mr. Hochstim said.

"It looks to me like the company really has the winds at its back right now," added analyst Michael J. Freudenstein of J.P. Morgan Securities.

Mr. Freudenstein said a decline in credit losses-to 4.31% of managed loans from 4.42% in the third quarter and 4.21% in the 1997 fourth quarter- was "a meaningful improvement" that provides "significant earnings leverage."

Also revealed in MBNA's announcement-a two-page press release that an analyst said would be followed by a fuller disclosure Thursday-were a 30% increase in fourth-quarter earnings per share, to 30 cents; full-year net income of $776.3 million or 97 cents a share, up 25% and 28%, respectively; a year-to-year increase of $10.3 billion, or 21%, in managed loans, to $59.6 billion; and a delinquency rate on managed loans of 4.62%, down from 4.69% on Sept. 30.

The earnings increase is "consistent with results we have reported for the past 32 quarters, since we became a public company," said MBNA spokesman Peter Frank. "The fundamentals of the company are as strong as they ever have been."

After the deal to acquire $2.9 billion of PNC Bank card receivables was announced Dec. 23, Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's Corp. placed MBNA and its banking unit under review for possible downgrades of senior debt ratings.

Both firms viewed the new equity offering as a plus.

S&P analyst Tanya Azarchs described the offering as "very positive" but said "we still need to get comfortable with what their capital targets might be."

"We have in the past said we would like to see a way they could get to 5% of tangible total equity to managed assets," Ms. Azarchs said, adding that the additional $1.2 billion of capital would get MBNA up to 4.1% from about 3%.

The MBNA statement listed the PNC purchase agreement as a fourth-quarter highlight, along with a letter of intent with American International Group of New York to underwrite automobile, homeowners, and personal umbrella insurance products for MBNA products. They expect to begin auto-insurance marketing in the first quarter, filling the void left when MBNA's agreement with the much smaller TIG Holdings Inc. unraveled last summer in a pricing dispute and lawsuit.

Having established itself as one of the U.S. credit card industry's top three-the others are Citigroup and Bank One Corp.-MBNA is diversifying while staying true to its affinity marketing tradition. Last year, MBNA said, it signed 475 new endorsement agreements and 11.3 million new cardholders with characteristics said to be "consistent with the quality of the corporation's existing cardholders."

"They've got a great crew who understand the market and they've got a technology second to none," said Robert K. Hammer, chief executive officer of R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, Thousand Oaks, Calif. "It doesn't surprise me they'd be on top."

Analysts viewed MBNA's early earnings report as a positive indicator for the rest of the card industry. Though MBNA has historically enjoyed chargeoff rates 200 basis points below the industry norm, observers expect other issuers will also report improvements.

"What has driven a lot of MBNA's success has been their willingness to grant (high) credit lines to good cardholders," said James Shanahan, partner, Business Dynamics Consulting Inc., Newark, Del.

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