Assets at most of the top 25 bank holding companies grew sharply in the first quarter, according to a ranking compiled by American Banker.

Most of the rise came from growth in items like loans and credit card outstandings or from adjustments in the market value of on-balance-sheet foreign exchange and interest rate-related contracts.

Only six companies - Banc One Corp., PNC Bank Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., Fleet Financial Group Inc., Bank of Boston Corp., and First Fidelity Bancorp. - reported a reduction in assets. These declines stemmed from a variety of causes, including the sale of units.

Rankings remained virtually unchanged. For example, Citicorp retained its position as the largest U.S. bank, with $269 billion of assets. But $72.3 billion-asset First Chicago Corp. dropped into 11th place, from 10th, and $42.3 billion-asset Republic New York Corp. jumped to 21st place, from 22d.

Analysts expressed some reservations about drawing any definitive conclusion from the data, noting that they were only single-day balance sheet totals for March 31, rather than average asset figures for the entire quarter.

But they added that the data still showed asset growth at most banks as their capital ratios improved.

"Banks' assets have been growing for several quarters," said Diane Glossman, a banking analyst at Salomon Brothers Inc.

Before the recent growth, banks were "constrained with regard to capital, so their asset growth was close to zero," she added.

Analysts noted that stronger capital ratios have permitted many banks to increase assets by keeping credit card receivables on the books rather than securitizing and selling them.

"Banks like Bank of New York have eliminated securitized positions," said Lawrence Cohn, a banking analyst at PaineWebber Inc. "They've enjoyed a substantial increase in core liquidity, so they don't have to securitize anymore."

Fluctuations in the market value of interest rate and foreign exchange- related contracts accounted for major increases in assets at big money- center banks like Chemical Banking Corp. and J.P. Morgan & Co.

At Morgan, the single biggest contributor to its 7.85% asset growth, to $167 billion, was an $8.8 billion increase in the value of trading account assets. The value of securities held at Morgan also jumped, by nearly $4 billion.

Similar adjustments occurred at Citicorp and Chemical. At Citicorp, the biggest impact on assets came from a $12.9 billion increase in the volume of foreign exchange contracts and adjustments in the value of foreign currency assets.

Changes in foreign exchange rates at Chemical contributed to a $12 billion rise in assets, while lending rose $1.5 billion.

Reductions in assets at other banks stemmed from a host of causes. At Wells Fargo, for example, part of the decline was accounted for by a fall of $3.2 billion in the value of investment securities held, to $10.6 billion, and a $715 million shrinkage in loans, to $32.7 billion. At Bank of Boston, a spokeswoman said the 2.6% decline in its assets, to $43.5 billion, was mainly a result of the sale of two units, Bank of Vermont and Casco Northern Bank.

Analysts said that, although they shared the concern of the Federal Reserve about relaxed lending standards, they saw no reason to be worried about the overall increase in assets.

"Growth in the asset base per se doesn't concern us," said PaineWebber's Mr. Cohn. "But we certainly share regulators' concerns that (the) industry may be showing less discipline on underwriting standards than they have in the past."

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