Defying gloomy speculations about consumer spending, the credit card issuer MBNA Corp. Wednesday reported further growth in earnings during the first quarter as net income rose 25% from the year earlier, to $311.1 million or 35 cents a share.
Though the credit card issuer showed higher chargeoffs in the quarter, it appears to be taking a smaller hit than other card companies did from recent economic troubles. MBNA said it had $87.9 billion of card loans outstanding at the end of the quarter, $15 billion more than a year earlier. This included the purchase of First Union Corp.'s $5.6 billion credit card portfolio.
MBNA of Wilmington, Del., is the second-largest U.S. card issuer. Citigroup Inc., with $96.2 billion of receivables at Dec. 31, is the largest.
The company said it had gained 2.5 million accounts in the quarter, plus 121 endorsements from organizations ranging from the Childhood Leukemia Foundation to Harrah's Entertainment Inc.
David Hochstim, an analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co., maintained his "buy" rating on MBNA, calling the first quarter "another great record" period for the company. Though loan growth was "nonexistent," compared with the fourth quarter, he said, this was typical for first-quarter results. He pointed to the company's wider interest margin as a good indicator of growth: 7.71 percentage points in the first quarter, compared with 7.22 in the preceding quarter and 7.10 a year earlier.
Despite the higher interest margin, due largely to rate reductions by the Federal Reserve, MBNA reported chargeoffs of 4.35% of total loans, up from 3.87% the quarter before and 4.06% the year earlier. About 4.6% of loans were delinquent, up from 4.35% the year earlier.
Kenneth A. Posner, an analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. in New York, said MBNA's loss rate is better than the average. Given recent spikes in bankruptcy filings, he said, MBNA's losses are not as remarkable as the rest of the industry's. "MBNA's losses can be predicted like clockwork," Mr. Posner said, which keeps its earnings stabile even in an uncertain market.
Mr. Posner, who maintained his "outperform" rating on MBNA, said he expects the industry to take more chargeoffs as a cyclical dip in consumer credit nears. Predicting that card company chargeoffs would rise to 7% by next year (from 5% now), he pointed to rising unemployment as a factor to watch.
"There's been a number of layoff announcements, but sometimes it takes a couple of months to pick the people to fire," Mr. Posner said. "In terms of credit card losses, it's just starting."