Robust consumer loan growth help propel first quarter core earnings at Signet Banking Corp.'s core bank by 48% to $26.7 million, although consolidated earnings - which include a recently spun-off credit card subsidiary - were down 21%.

Earnings per share of the core bank, which does not include the Capital One Financial Corp. credit card subsidiary, were 45 cents, one cent above consensus estimates. Consolidated earnings per share, which includes Signet's 89% interest in Capital One for two months prior to the Feb. 28 spinoff, were 71 cents.

"They're starting out the year with a bang," said analyst Thomas D. McCandless, with PaineWebber Inc. "They are replacing a lot of low-margin investment securities with higher-margin loans, primarily consumer.

"You combine that with pretty tight management of expenses, and you get the right combination for fairly rapid earnings growth."

Signet, which has $10 billion of assets, grew consumer and commercial loans by $190 million, or 3%, from yearend. Noninterest expenses, excluding Capital One, was $111.4 million, nearly level with $110 million in the year-ago quarter.

As part of its ongoing reengineering program, Signet shed 2,313 full- time employees during the past year, a 38% reduction.

Early last year, Richmond-based Signet began applying to its core bank the same kinds of information-based marketing strategies that proved so successful with its credit card unit. The basic thrust of the program is to identify appropriate customer groups through statistical analysis and then solicit their business through mass mailings.

"Signet's challenge going forward is to grow in a controlled way and avoid the pitfalls that can happen whenever you have rapid growth," said Thomas F. Theurkauf Jr., with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Nonperforming assets fell by $7 million from yearend to $41.6 million, or 0.74% of loans and foreclosed properties.

In Mississippi, Jackson-based Deposit Guaranty Corp. earned $17.2 million, down 8% from $18.7 million in the year-ago period. Deposit Guaranty, which has $5.1 billion of assets, said net income would have actually gained $4 million after discounting $5.4 million of securities gains taken in the first quarter of 1994.

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