For the top card issuers, receivables growth has slowed down for the second year in a row.
In the annual American Banker survey of the 50 largest issuers of cards through banks, receivables grew only 6% in the 12 months through March, to $412 billion.
The rate was 10% in the preceding 12 months and 23.4% in year before that. (A chart on page 10 lists the growth in receivables of the top 50, adjusting for major portfolio acquisitions.)
Meanwhile net chargeoffs among the top 50 increased to 5.58% in March, from 4.74% a year earlier.
Issuers have faced other pressures. As card companies try to snatch customers from one another, marketing expenses are rising and enticements like low teaser rates are proliferating.
"Consolidation will continue at an accelerated rate and is likely to remain there for the next two or there years," said Jerry Craft, president of Inficorp, an Atlanta firm that manages credit card portfolios.
Early this year Citicorp preserved its lead over fast-growing MBNA Corp. in credit card receivables by purchasing AT&T Universal Card Services.
Banc One Corp. last year bought First USA Inc., boosting itself to No. 3 from No. 10. Fleet Financial Group bought Advanta Corp.'s card portfolio and leaped to ninth from 27th.
Since this year's first quarter, several more bank mergers and portfolio acquisitions have been announced, assuring that next year's list will again look different.
Two weeks ago, Banc One said it will purchase the $4.9 billion portfolio of Chevy Chase Bank, currently the 19th-largest card issuer. Chevy Chase is typical of second-tier and smaller issuers that are opting out of a business that increasingly demands economies of scale and sophisticated, expensive technology.
First Union Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. divested portions of their portfolios, and Webster Bank of Waterbury, Conn., sold its $31 million of card assets.
"A lot of the banks aren't prepared for the national business," said Henry C. Dickson, a banking analyst for Salomon Smith Barney in New York. "That will play to the hands of the stronger players."
Mr. Dickson predicted banks that issue cards in their core regions alone will still feel competitive heat from afar.
Because of the consolidation, the top 50's share of all credit card receivables rose to 81.3% on March 31, from 79.7% a year before.
Big gainers this year included stalwarts such as MBNA, which posted a 21.9% increase in outstandings.
Also outpacing industry growth were New York-based Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., which saw a 14.1% increase to $35.8 billion; and American Express Co., rising 19.3%, to $13.4 billion.
The resurgence of American Express, also of New York, is in part due to its Delta Airlines SkyMiles Optima card, its loyalty program Membership Rewards, and its small-business card.
"We have over the last several years offered a broader range of products," said Amex spokeswoman Gail Wasserman. That means "more choice for customers who want to do business with us."
As the number of large issuers continues to shrink, industry players will need multiple product offerings and a focus on technology and talent, Salomon's Mr. Dickson said.