Charge volume and cards in circulation increased at both bank card associations in 1996 but Visa gained market share at MasterCard's expense, according to figures released Thursday.

Visa U.S.A. said its volume share of the U.S. credit and debit card market increased for the fifth straight year, to 51.4%-compared to 50% in 1995.

MasterCard International said its U.S. market share dipped to 26.4%., from 27.1% in 1995.

Visa said it took market share from MasterCard and the other major general-purpose card brands.

But a MasterCard spokesman noted that his association's share of direct- mail offers and its response rates increased while both numbers declined at Visa-perhaps indicating MasterCard might eventually narrow the gap.

MasterCard's share of offers increased to 35%-from 26% in 1995-while Visa's fell to 58% from 65%, according to BAI Mail Monitor, which tracks direct mail volume.

Lisa Itkowitz, marketing director at the Tarrytown, N.Y.-based company, said the change may be due to cobranded offers, which could have leaned more heavily to MasterCard. She also said Visa's response rate "was slightly down in 1996 while MasterCard was higher."

She said the findings indicate that MasterCard is "growing at a faster rate, but in absolute numbers Visa is much bigger."

Visa said the 20.1% volume increase-to $447.4 billion-in 1996 was its third straight yearly gain of at least 20%. Cards in circulation increased 10%, to 274.5 million.

MasterCard said its U.S. volume increased 14% to $229.3 billion. Cards in circulation were up 14% to 199.9 million, due to growth in gold, debit, and corporate card programs. MasterCard said the number of MasterMoney debit cards increased 106% over 1995, to 15.6 million. Worldwide, MasterCard's volume reached $552.8 billion, up 15%. Visa did not provide worldwide statistics.

Thomas Facciola, a research analyst for Lehman Brothers, said the numbers prove "Visa is still the superior brand and the spread is widening."

He called the number of cards in the marketplace and the share of direct mail offers meaningless statistics.

Mr. Facciola did note that growth in charge volume on credit cards is slowing down compared to that seen from 1994 to 1995, but "debit is finally coming on strong."

Carl F. Pascarella, president and chief executive officer of Visa U.S.A., said: "The success of Visa is directly attributable to our member financial institutions providing consumers better value than the competition."

Mr. Pascarella said $53 billion of consumer spending migrated from cash and checks to Visa cards in 1996, an increase of 1.1% of personal consumption expenditures.

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