SAN FRANCISCO - Providian Financial Corp., which had to deal with legal challenges all year, on Thursday reported that its 2000 earnings rose 44%, to $798.5 million, or $2.73 a share, before adjustments.

After adjustments, per-share income was $2.23.

The adjustments included $36.7 million for settlements in the fourth quarter and a gain of $64.7 million on the fourth-quarter sale of home equity loans. In all it paid $309.3 million for legal settlements in 2000.

Providian netted 3.9 million new accounts for a yearend total of 16.3 million, a 31% gain over 1999; and increased total managed credit card loans 42%, to $27.1 billion.

In a news release, chairman and chief executive officer Shailesh Mehta reaffirmed Providian's long-term goal of 25% growth in earnings per share and gave 2001 earnings guidance of $3.35 to $3.45 per share.

David J. Petrini, executive vice president and chief financial officer, predicted in a conference call that the softening economy will drive credit loss rates to 9% this year.

Mr. Petrini said interest income would grow faster than noninterest income in 2001 and that Providian's international business will expand.

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