First Tennessee Bank has become the latest bank to scale back its credit card operations, announcing Thursday that it would sell half its portfolio to MBNA Corp. of Wilmington, Del.
The 222,000 accounts being sold, which represent $286 million of receivables, are primarily cobranded and affinity accounts, which are MBNA's specialty. First Tennessee said it expects a pre-tax gain of $50 million from the sale.
The First Tennessee National Corp. subsidiary said it wanted to divest of card accounts held by people who are not depositors at the bank. Other banks - including First Union Corp., which sold its noncore card accounts to MBNA this year - have made the same decision as First Tennessee, opting to concentrate their credit card operations on customers who have other relationships with the bank.
First Tennessee plans to halve its credit card staff, to 100 employees. "When 50% of our program disappears, approximately 50% of the personnel has to go," said Ralph Rolen, executive vice president of the retail credit division. The workers will stay on for a five-month transition period, after which the bank will try to place as many of them as possible in other positions, Mr. Rolen said.
He said the bank's decision to sell the card accounts did not have to do with their performance. "This is an extremely high-performing, high-return portfolio. There's absolutely no asset quality problem in this whatsoever."
Mr. Rolen said First Tennessee's affinity program focuses on national sororities and fraternities. That makes it a good match for MBNA, which has affinity relationships with more than 500 colleges and universities and is the second-largest bank card issuer, with $84.7 billion in managed loans.
"The affinity portion of the portfolio clearly fits into that existing part of our business," said Alex Giacco, a spokesman for MBNA. "We're always looking at portfolios, especially those with the characteristics of our existing one and when it makes financial sense to do so." The portion of First Union's portfolio that MBNA bought this year had $5.6 billion of receivables, three million consumer accounts, and 300,000 commercial accounts.
Mr. Rolen said the accounts being sold to MBNA are held by people who "do not have any other relationship with us - bank, brokerage, or mortgage. The only thing they have is our credit card."
The likelihood of drawing those customers to other bank products and services seemed small. "Because these accounts are generated by cobrands, there's a joint partnership with the customer rather than a primary relationship with the bank," Mr. Rolen said. "We had to ask, Are we really going to put the energy and dollars and marketing into something that is not really our business?"
Thomas J. Abruzzo, an analyst at Fitch IBCA who covers MBNA, said that if the credit card company is to continue building its portfolio it has to supplement the big deals with small ones. The First Tennessee sale, he said, is "a very small blip compared to the size of the company, but they've gotten so big that internally generated growth of any magnitude is becoming a challenge."