Tuesday's stunning announcement has knocked $15.8 billion, or 24% off Bank One Corp.'s market capitalization, prompting some observers to question whether the Chicago banking giant has the financial strength to survive industry consolidation.
Though some said merger speculation about the $256 billion-asset company is premature, news that weakness in its credit card business would hurt 1999 earnings has cast doubt on the company's image as an aggressive acquirer.
"There is a big possibility that it could be taken over in the long term," said Diana Yates, a bank analyst at A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis. "I don't see anything that could get the stock moving on the company's own merit."
Officials at Bank One declined to say whether the company is a target. But spokesman Thomas K. Kelly pointed to Chief Executive Officer John B. McCoy's defiant statement at the end of the company's presentation to analysts on Wednesday: "No. 1, the franchise value is strong; No. 2, the merger is on track; No. 3, growth opportunities are present; and No. 4, credit cards remain a formidable competitor."
Bank One's strong midwestern franchise and retail business would look attractive to ideal acquirers, such as Chase Manhattan Corp. and Citicorp Inc., which have said in the past that they want to expand their retail business. Bank One's credit card business would fit well with Citicorp's credit card operations, creating synergies and cost saves, Ms. Yates said.
Kenneth Herz, a spokesman for Chase, declined to discuss Bank One but said: "We will be opportunistic. We have always been opportunistic."
Citicorp spokesman Richard Howe said the New York bank "is interested in making acquisitions primarily, but not entirely, outside the United States."
Ms. Yates said that "another wild card for Bank One is asset quality, which is as good as it gets" for banks, she said, "and it is not going to get better. If at any point it has to grow its reserves, that will cut into earnings."
Questions about Bank One staying independent have definitely come up, said Joan Goodman, a bank analyst at Pershing, a division of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.
"There might be more trouble ahead. We don't know if another shoe will drop," said the analyst. Expenses related to the company's online bank venture, Wingspan, and preparing computers for year 2000 "could cut into the bank's efficiency. Do I think the bank could be acquired in the next 18 months? Yes, I do."
Other analysts and market experts, however, said that it is unlikely that Bank One will be taken over. Merger activity is at a low and few companies have strong price-earnings multiples to pay a decent price for what many analysts still perceive to be a trophy franchise.
"Such talk is premature," said Nancy Bush, a bank analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co., Livingston, N.J. "Bank One is so large bank that there is no natural buyer and I don't think the company is at point where it has to do a merger of equals. We are also in a time when banks can still say no to suitors. Three generations run Bank One, so there is more of a stake in the franchise."
H. Rodgin Cohen, a partner in the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, agreed. "I do not think a one-quarter blip in earnings makes a company as strong and as well run as Bank One vulnerable to a takeover in the short-term, the long-term, or the intermediate term, for that matter," he said.