Bank of America Corp., which in recent months was considered a problem child by many banking analysts on Wall Street, has been bringing home some better grades of late.
On Wednesday the Charlotte, N.C., company got a top rating from Andrew B. Collins at ABN Amro in New York. Mr. Collins upgraded the stock to "buy," ABN's premium rating, marking the end of his gradual appraisal and upgrade of the company's stock in recent months. In April, Mr. Collins, who was then working for ING Barings, which ABN acquired on April 23, raised B of A to "buy," the second grade at ING, from "hold."
Mr. Collins, like some of his peers on Wall Street, said he is happy with the changes wrought by Bank of America's new chief executive as he seeks to restructure the company.
"We had the opportunity to meet with Ken Lewis, the chief executive officer of Bank of America," Mr. Collins stated in his research note. "We are very impressed with his focus on improving customer service and organic growth, in contrast to his predecessor, whom we considered an empire builder."
Mr. Lewis officially took over from Hugh L. McColl Jr. in April, though he had been running day-to-day operations for about a year before that. He has outlined plans to reorganize both retail and commercial banking, putting an emphasis on building better service.
In his bid to reorganize, he has focused on hiring some big names this year from outside Bank of America to run various business units, including Charles P. Goslee, a former Eastman Kodak Co. executive, who was hired to help upgrade customer satisfaction. John Quinn, a former FedEx Corp. executive, was hired to improve the check processing business. Mr. Lewis also tapped Richard DeMartini, who had led the international private client group at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, to head its asset management business.
Bank of America has announced plans to boost its retail brokerage unit by adding 200 brokers to its staff of 600.
Many analysts, among them Michael L. Mayo of Prudential Securities, who is known for his "sell" ratings, have applauded the effort. Mr. Mayo has kept Bank of America on "buy," his top rating, and Richard X. Bove at Raymond James & Associates Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla., also rates the company "strong buy."
"The pace of change and the company's progress is greater than at any other large bank" in the United States, Mr. Mayo said. "They destroyed a lot of value in good times, now they create value in difficult times."
"It is getting lonely here," said Thomas F. Theurkauf at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., who rates the company "underperform." He added that Bank of America is indeed a stock worth debating about. "It is the kind of stock reasonable people can disagree on," he said.
In his judgment, however, the company's shaky credit quality remains an overwhelming issue and Mr. Theurkauf hinted that the stock is nowhere near an upgrade from his side. "I applaud their attempt to go back to the basics, but despite their effort to invigorate the core banking business, credit remains an important issue," he said.