Chase Manhattan Corp. led U.S. banks in domestic commercial and industrial lending in the first quarter, ending the period with more than $55 billion of business loans on its books-about 13% more than a year earlier.

Indeed, 13 of the top 15 commercial lenders saw an uptick in loans on their books during the year ended March 31, according to data from Sheshunoff Information Services Inc.

Citicorp was ranked second, and BankAmerica Corp., a close third, with $52.7 billion and $52.5 billion of business loans, respectively.

Industry observers said the growth at Chase-a large syndicator of big corporate loans-partly reflects a push for middle-market business, particularly in the New York metropolitan region.

"Lending is a more profitable product to middle-market customers," said Ronald I. Mandle, bank analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., New York. "It's more able to stand on its own, and it's also a lead-in to other products and services as well, that makes a relationship profitable on an overall basis."

NationsBank Corp. and First Chicago NBD Corp. rounded out the top five, with $48.9 billion and $46.4 billion of commercial credits on their books, respectively. NationsBank was helped in part by its January merger with Boatmen's Bancshares, which brought some $7 billion of commercial loans to the combined company.

But it was Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp. that reported the greatest growth in business lending during the 12 months. It increased its business loan volume by a whopping 20%, to $16.1 billion, according to Sheshunoff.

BankBoston Corp. had the second-largest business loan growth, a 14.7% increase that landed it in seventh place with $21.4 billion of commercial and industrial loans. Its merger with Boston-based BayBanks Inc., completed in July, added $883 million of business loans to the post-merger institution's balance sheet.

Wells Fargo & Co.'s merger with First Interstate brought about $7.6 billion of commercial and industrial loans into the bank, for a total of $15.9 billion and a No. 9 ranking.

Meanwhile, J.P. Morgan & Co. reduced its business loan portfolio by 4.5%, to $14.2 billion, down from $14.85 billion, leaving it in 13th place among commercial banks.

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