Mergers and acquisitions are reshuffling the ranks of the largest credit card issuers, with nonbank companies accounting for most of the growth.

Among the top 50 companies in managed bank card loans, as listed in American Banker survey tables beginning on page 10, 17 diversified financial companies had an aggregate 16% growth in outstandings in the 12 months through March 31.

The diversified group includes the Discover card organization, Household International, American Express Co., Fingerhut Cos., and Associates First Capital Corp. Each of those registered double-digit increases, and all except Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co. were above 20%.

They well exceeded the 4% rate of the 33 bank and thrift companies that rounded out the top 50. The largest in that category, Citicorp, registered a 12% decline, to $44.6 billion of loans, though it still led the fast- closing No. 2, MBNA Corp., by about $5 billion.

According to a separate survey by The Nilson Report, Citicorp has since rebounded, showing an increase of 7% in its portfolio for the 12 months ended in June.

The top 50 credit card companies held a commanding 79.7% share of the market as of March 31, but that was down for the first time since 1993. The figure was 83.3% a year earlier.

Several card companies hit by high delinquencies repositioned themselves by selling portions of their portfolio-and they fell in the standings. Bank of New York Co. was down eight notches to 22d; Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., slipped from 31st to 40th.

Only two of the diversified companies, GE Capital and AT&T Corp.-these are the parents of card-issuing entities-experienced declines, compared with 13 banks.

"There is always natural attrition in portfolios," said David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report, Oxnard, Calif.

Card companies cancel accounts and consumers just walk away, he observed. Either way there will be attrition of 5% or 6% a year even in portfolios that are doing well, he said.

Meanwhile, portfolio acquisitions helped some issuers rise in the standings, such as No. 7 Household International, but it was not a universal trend.

"Ten or 15 years ago Citicorp was on the hunt for all the big acquisitions, " said Robert K. Hammer, chairman and chief executive officer of R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "They weren't winning every time, but they were in the hunt every time, and it's been years since I've seen them aggressively go after portfolios."

General Electric, despite being an aggressive buyer of card portfolios, experienced a 27% decline in managed loans, to $4.8 billion, sinking to 21st place from 16th. Its chargeoff rate jumped to 6.09% from 4.03%.

"General Electric's acquisitions may be a sound strategy to offset attrition in the core portfolio," Mr. Hammer said.

Customer loyalty is eroding, he said, and competitors are going after one another's portfolios feverishly to boost their balances.

Another avid account purchaser, Associates First Capital, saw net chargeoffs rise 653.8% to $517.8 million. Its card loan portfolio went up by 24% to $6.7 billion.

"I usually don't see them buying junk," Mr. Hammer said. The figures might therefore suggest some deterioration in the portfolio.

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