Banks bought back more than $5 billion of their own stock in the second quarter, matching the first quarter's pace and doubling last year's rate.
Bank of America Corp. led the second-quarter spree, buying back 25 million shares for $1.75 billion, at an average price of $70 a share.
In part, the buybacks surged because several banks satisfied the Securities and Exchange Commission's six-month restriction on the practice. The SEC prohibits buybacks until six months after the close of any merger financed by pooling-of-interest accounting.
In the second quarter, with their mergers six months behind them, several banks became free to buy back their shares.
Bank of America was one, and Bank One Corp., which bought back $174 million in stock, was another.
Marni Pont O'Doherty, an analyst for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., which compiled the figures, said analysts knew that the paucity of buybacks last year was merely a trend that "would end once the six-month" prohibition expired.
The participants in stock buyback programs included: Chase Manhattan Corp. $968 million; First Union Corp. $600 million; National City Corp. $442 million; and Wells Fargo & Co. $80 million.
Buybacks usually generate a favorable response from investors because the purchases reduce the number of shares outstanding, leading to higher per-share earnings.
"If you can't raise the numerator, try cutting the denominator," said Jeffrey Warantz, an equity strategist for Salomon Smith Barney, a Citigroup unit.
"Overall it has probably been a good use of funds," said Charles W. Johnson, head equity trader at Blaylock & Partners. "It helps to put some sort of a floor on your stock price."
Analysts attribute the buybacks to high profits and a reduction of reserve requirements. They point out that since the mid-1990s, banks have reduced their capital needs by securitizing their loans and removing them from their balance sheets. The capital thus freed can be used for buybacks, Ms. Doherty said.
In addition, banks have been deriving more and more income from fees, which enables them to pare their interest-bearing assets and their reserve requirements.
Still, some investors question whether buybacks always make sense. Whether they do depends on the stock price, said Doug Pratt, a portfolio manager at Bricoleur Capital Management in San Diego.
"It makes a lot of sense if and only if you think that the stock price is a good value," Mr. Pratt said.
The average $70 a share paid by Bank of America in the second quarter about equals the $70.25 its stock was selling for on Tuesday.
"The major reason banks are implementing buybacks is that they are seeing earnings slow," and the programs will bolster earnings per share, Mr. Pratt said. The practice "is hardly surprising this late in the cycle."
Some analysts say that in relation to the Standard & Poor's 500 index, bank equities may be a good buy. The value of stocks of the 50 largest U.S. banks have increased 4.2% this year, compared with the S&P 500's 11.7% return, according to a recent report by Banc of America Securities. Last year bank stocks had a 4.8% increase, compared with a 26.7% jump in the S&P 500 stocks.
Investor jitters over interest rate changes and credit quality have in part kept bank stocks as a group at bay.
The first-half buybacks were at their highest two-quarter level since 1997, according to the Keefe data.
The $5 billion of stock purchased in the second quarter was just shy of the $5.1 billion in the first, but well above the $3 billion of last year's second quarter and well above a recent low point of $1.9 billion in the third quarter of 1998.
In the first six months of 1999, the nation's 25 largest banks bought back $10.1 billion in stock, versus $10.6 billion for all of last year. "With $5 billion a quarter we tend to be casual about it," said Keefe's Ms. O'Doherty.