Receivables of the top 10 credit card issuers continued to grow steadily in the first half of the year despite declines in consumer spending and government reports pointing to a general economic slowdown.
RAM Research Corp.'s ranking of this group of leaders provides the latest evidence that the card industry remains vibrant.
In its midyear tally, the Frederick, Md.-based company looked at the number of cards in force, receivables, and active account growth, among other data.
RAM found few surprises in year-to-date growth of outstanding balances, except for AT&T Universal Card Services, Jacksonville, Fla., which was the only issuer to experience a decline.
MBNA Corp. and First USA Inc., ranked third and fourth, respectively, continue to report tremendous growth. MBNA Bank in Wilmington, Del., jumped 18.2% to $20.78 billion, and First USA, in Dallas, rose 20.8% to $13.28 billion.
In April alone, according to Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Moshe Orenbuch, MBNA added $1 billion outstanding balances.
While First USA relies on the appeal of teaser rates and balance transfer offers to garner new customers, MBNA charges comparatively high interest rates, but offers lines of credit exceeding $40,000.
"First USA gets its receivables through balance transfer offers and MBNA experiences most of its growth once the account is opened," said Mr. Orenbuch.
Also noteworthy is the largest issuer, Citibank, which increased its receivables 10%, to $40.58 billion.
"Just two years ago Citibank's growth rate was nowhere near 10%," said Robert B. McKinley, president of RAM Research. "Citibank has come back."
Mr. McKinley pointed to a number of initiatives like the elimination of annual fees and other price reductions that have helped the Citicorp flagship.
On the other hand, Household International, Prospect Heights, Ill., ranked seventh, is beginning to experience a slowdown. The issuer of the General Motors card grew only 3.2% to $11.08 billion.
Mr. McKinley attributed Household's small increase to the issuer's higher than average interest rates.
In a climate of rising interest rates, "consumers become frightened when they see 19.4%," said Mr. McKinley.
AT&T's troubles can be traced back five years to its original proposition, a no-fee-for-life card, which attracted mostly convenience users.
About 50% of AT&T's portfolio consists of convenience users compared with an industry average of about 30%, according to RAM Research.
An AT&T spokesman said simply, "we are facing tremendous competition." The spokesman also disputed RAM Research's report of a 1.6% receivables decline, to $12.3 billion.
While the issuer confirms that its outstanding balances stand at that figure, it claims that there has been no change since the beginning of the year.
As of Sept. 1, AT&T confirmed it will implement a series of price adjustments that will penalize cardholders who either do not pay their bills on time or exceed other contractual limits.
For example, people who exceed their credit limits will pay $15 instead of $10 and people who pay their bills late will be assessed a higher interest rate.
One category, however, in which AT&T shines is the number of cards in force. By this measurement, AT&T is the third largest issuer with 23 million cards, behind Citibank and Dean Witter, Discover & Co., which issues the Discover card.
MBNA leads the top 10 in the category of the highest cardholder balances. MBNA's cardholders maintain an average daily balance of $2,451. The second-highest debt revolvers are First USA customers, with an average balance of $2,392. Chemical Bank is the third largest bank in this category with a $2,000 average daily balance.