Bank One Corp.'s announcement Wednesday that it would sell a $2.15 billion real estate loan portfolio to Household International Inc. may prove the embattled banking company is serious about cleaning house, but it does little to improve management's diminishing credibility.
In recent months, analysts have grown increasingly concerned that the $265 billion-asset banking company continues to send mixed signals about the underlying performance of its key businesses.
Meanwhile, Bank One's board remains in the throes of its search for a permanent successor to John B. McCoy, who resigned as chief executive officer just before Christmas - a fact that also contributes to the mixed reception that met the sale to Prospect Heights, Ill.-based Household.
Some analysts said that while they were pleased the company was shedding an underperforming business, it would have made more sense to wait until a permanent CEO was in place.
"The definition of 'core business' can't be answered until it's clear who's going to be running the show there," said Carla D'Arista, an analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey. "There is a tremendous sense of disruption there."
Recent trips by key Bank One executives to New York have failed to sway Wall Street sentiment. The company has made repeated profit warnings in the last few months, and there are signs that problems increasing revenues and controlling expenses are not limited to credit card operations.
"They're in denial about the full state of their problems," said Michael Mayo, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston.
Verne G. Istock, Bank One's president and acting chief executive officer, said in a statement Wednesday that the sale of the consumer finance business "reaffirms our corporate strategy to focus more sharply on our core businesses and markets where we can leverage our scale and skill."
Mr. Istock and chief financial officer Robert A. Rosholt hastily organized a buffet luncheon for analysts at the Pierre Hotel early last week. The meeting came just two weeks after a taped telephone message guiding analysts to the lower end of a range of earnings targets and two months after a bigger meeting with analysts was held in New York at which another profit warning was issued.
The luncheon was held "to update investors," a spokesman said. But analysts said Mr. Istock and Mr. Rosholt provided little new information.
"They haven't come clean with the Street," Mr. Mayo said. "Their credibility continues to diminish."
The CEO search also has observers guessing. Bank One has told analysts that it has narrowed its search and that it expects to announce the permanent CEO before its annual meeting in mid-May. But analysts said they have been getting phone calls from a New York firm that is conducting a survey about Wall Street's perceptions of the current management team.
Susan Burns, who was identified by analysts as the person conducting the poll, declined to identify who hired her or the name of her firm, citing confidentiality agreements. Some analysts theorized that the bank's board, struggling over the succession issue, hired her to look over existing management again.
A spokesman said he had no knowledge of the survey.
Despite uncertainty on the part of market watchers, Bank One's current management appears eager to prove it is taking steps to move the company in a positive direction. Wednesday's deal, for undisclosed terms, includes 97 offices of Banc One Financial Services, the Chicago banking company's consumer finance arm, and about 900 employees. Another 200 positions are to be eliminated after the deal's close, scheduled for the end of March.
The announcement coincided with reports Wednesday that Bank One is considering a sale of its much ballyhooed Internet-only bank, Wingspanbank.com.
A Bank One spokesman declined to comment on the reports, but he added that the company continues to review "all of our lines of business and all of our strategic options."
Bank One appears to be abandoning the nonbank consumer financial services strategy in favor of returning to its roots as a retail bank with a strong branch presence in 14 states, analysts said. Bank One has 1,800 branches. "We will continue to grow our home equity and mortgage businesses by focusing on households" in those markets, Mr. Istock said in the statement.
The transaction was considered to be a positive development for Household, which has 1,400 offices and specializes in consumer lending and credit cards.
Household said the portfolio, which consists of lower-quality consumer loans, was "consistent" with the company's focus on the middle market.
"This acquisition broadens our customer base, increases our cross-selling potential, and gives us quality people to support our growth," said William F. Aldinger, chairman and chief executive officer of Household. He added that deal would immediately add to Household's earnings.
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