Analysts warned Thursday that a planned acceleration of Bank One Corp.'s stock buyback program could jeopardize its credit ratings.
The $256 billion-asset banking company told analysts on Wednesday that it planned to purchase 20 million of its shares on the open market by the end of this year. The disclosure came in a conference call during which Bank One executives explained why earnings would fall well short of expectations. The problems were centered in the First USA credit card division.
Analysts said that stock buybacks would ordinarily be a sound strategy. Bank One could buy its shares on the cheap -- the price tumbled 23% on Wednesday, and another 1.2% Thursday. In addition, the purchases themselves would create demand for Bank One shares, pushing up the price.
But analysts said the bank's difficulties will put pressure on capital accounts. The earnings shortfall would mean fewer funds would flow into retained earnings. In addition, the buybacks would have to be financed largely through bonlead to a downgrading by credit-rating agencies.
"With lower earnings to come and higher buybacks, their total leverage is going to go up," said Winnie Cheng, an analyst at Banc of America Securities. "Their ratings could become suspect."
Bank One management said it expected earnings to decline between $480 million to $530 million, or more than $300 million after taxes, according to analysts. "That is how much they will not be able to replenish their capital base with," Ms. Cheng said.
Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for Bank One, said that it is aware of the danger and that the amount of buybacks will depend on capital levels. "We are always mindful of capital ratios," he said.
Under a program announced in May that authorized the repurchase of 65 million shares, Bank One already has bought back 15 million shares. The additional 20 million would be part of that program.
Ms. Cheng said that marketing is so critical in the intensely competitive credit card business that Bank One would be better off putting more money into promoting its cards than into buying back stock.
"You need marketing to sustain and build market share," Ms. Cheng said. "Instead of using it to buy back shares, they could use it" to generate growth in card accounts.
Though Bank One's tier-one capital ratio of 8.1% is well above the federal regulatory requirement of 6%, its debt-to-equity ratio does not compare well with its peers', Ms. Cheng said. Kathy Shanley, an analyst for Gimme Credit in Wilmette, Ill., said the pressure on capital is cause for concern, but Bank One has some breathing room when compared with Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union Corp., which also has an ambitious share buyback program. Its tier-one ratio is 6.6%.
On Wednesday, Standard & Poor's affirmed Bank One's rating of A-plus for senior debt holding company debt, while changing its outlook to stable from positive.