Two southeastern banks, Synovus Financial Corp. and Centura Banks Inc., finished the year with a strong fourth quarter, helped by good loan growth and improved net interest margins. Earnings per-share at Synovus and Centura fell right in line with Wall Street consensus estimates.

But earnings per-share at a third company, Hibernia Corp., came in at 15 cents a share, sharply below the consensus estimate of 26 cents. Hibernia, which is based in New Orleans, attributed the shortfall to two acquisition- related charges and a $3.9 million securities loss.

Hibernia declined to release specific fourth-quarter numbers, saying the figures wouldn't be available until next week. The company, which has $6.5 billion of assets, announced full-year earnings of $84.7 million, or 78 cents a share, which represents a 33% improvement over 1993.

In a conference call with analysts Monday, chief executive Stephen A. Hansel said fourth-quarter earnings, with the charges, come out to $16.5 million, or 15 cents a share, compared with a restated 16 cents for the year-ago quarter.

For the full year, Hibernia said it took $11.1 million in charges related to recent mergers and a $17.6 million charge for goodwill associated with acquisitions made in the 1980s. In addition, it took a $3.9 million loss on the sale of securities acquired through mergers.

Mr. Hansel said $8 million worth of charges occurred in the fourth quarter, which cut earnings by 7.4 cents a share.

Synovus, which is based in Columbus, Ga., netted $24.6 million in the fourth quarter, up 19% from the year-ago period. Earnings per-share at Synovus, which has $6.1 billion on assets, were 36 cents.

Rocky Mount, N.C.-based Centura earned $13.7 million, 16% above 1993's fourth quarter. Centura, with $4.2 billion of assets, reported 65 cents in earnings per share.

An improving net interest margin helped both Synovus and Centura, as their loan yields - mostly tied to prime - rose at a faster rate than their deposit costs. The margin at each bank gained 10 basis points from the third quarter, ending the fourth quarter at 5.28% for Synovus and 5.12% for Centura.

"Prime has been our friend all year," said David T. Gardner, investor relations spokesman at Synovus.

Synovus and Centura also reported strong loan growth in the fourth quarter, led by commercial credits. Synovus' loans grew 5% from the third quarter, to $4.9 billion. Centura reported 4% growth during the period, to $3 billion.

(For a story on earnings results at Synovus' credit card processing subsidiary, see page 16.)

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