LONDON -- The midyear earnings season for Britain's top banks is expected to kick off today with a healthy return to profitability at Midland Bank PLC, recently taken over by HSBC Holdings.

But Midland probably will not set the tone for its main competitors, because most leading British banks' operating results are plagued by stubbornly high bad-debt provisions.

Barclays Bank PLC, for example, is expected to announce a drop in pretax profits to as little as $193 million, from $730 million a year earlier, led by its big share of loans to the stricken commercial property market.

Standard Chartered PLC is forecast to show little if any improvement, mired by its exposure to a recent Indian stock scandal.

Little Positive Heard

Analysts are not finding much positive to say about the expected improvements at Midland and National Westminster Bank PLC, which are rising from exceptionally weak year-earlier levels.

Tim Clarke, a bank analyst at Panmure Gordon & Co., summed up sentiment on the first-half results by saying that "everyone knows they are going to be horrendous; up until a few weeks ago, one of the key questions was whether the dividends would be maintained."

Mr. Clarke and other analysts agree that all five main clearing banks will at least maintain their interim payouts, and that sector favorite Lloyds Bank PLC has room to increase.

But many also warn that U.K. commercial bank profitability isn't likely to improve much in the near term.

A Sluggish Economy

The recession promises to be a continued damper, as economists widely anticipate a 1% drop in gross domestic product in 1992, followed by only a slow recovery.

The impact has been felt by British banks in the form of slack consumer loan demand and frequent corporate failures.

Debt problems have begun to emerge as well, some at major corporations that managed to weather the early part of the downturn.

And many banks have been unable to duplicate the service-fee increases that fueled double-digit growth in 1991 operating profits.

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