Bank stocks declined a bit for the fourth straight day Thursday, continuing their steep slide this week in the wake of U.S. Bancorp's earnings revision.
And observers were left with plenty of doubts for any near-term rebound.
The American Banker index of 225 banks fell a modest 0.72% on Thursday, but most of the damage came earlier in the week, after U.S. Bancorp's announcement Monday that its per-share earnings in 1999 would be as much as 6% short of consensus estimates. It was largely this news that caused the index to fall 13% in three trading days, erasing most of its gains since its 1999 low of 698.2 on Oct. 15.
Investors are worried about a range of issues. Interest rates remain the primary area of concern, but there is growing uneasiness about credit quality, the strength of revenue growth, and difficulty in digesting mergers.
"The whole revenue-wall issue is center stage in the eyes of investors," said David Stumpf, an analyst with A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. "Earnings quality hasn't been there for a while, and people finally are facing up to the fact that the earnings outlook is not as bright as it has been over the past few years."
Some analysts say they are not seriously concerned about deteriorating credit quality because banks are working off a historically low nonperforming asset base. Others say that because revenues are weakening banks have little wiggle room to offset any rise in nonperforming assets. Still others point to rising nonperforming assets at such banking companies as Hibernia Corp. of New Orleans and Summit Bancorp of Princeton, N.J.
"If you don't have an abundant source of earnings to draw from, how are you going to absorb even minor increases in credit costs?" Mr. Stumpf said.
Such unease has been aggravated by narrowing interest-rate margins and by operating problems at many banks, especially those that are trying to digest recent mergers.
U.S. Bancorp, for example, was the victim of both - its margins narrowed substantially and it had some customer service problems after the 1997 merger of its predecessors, First Bank Systems of Minneapolis and U.S. Bancorp of Portland, Ore.
In the meantime, banks must deal with stiffening competition for loans and pressures to cut costs, said Mr. Stumpf.
On top of it all, investors are questioning whether banks can sustain double-digit growth in earnings per share, he said.
Some portfolio managers take a brighter view. Michael Laliberte, a co-adviser for the Imperial Bank Fund, a portfolio of bank stocks managed by Retirement Planning Co. of Providence, R.I., said he hopes bank stocks will rise because their price-to-earnings ratios are around 60% of the Standard & Poor's 500, much lower than the 75% to 80% ranges of the recent past.
Mr. Stumpf, who earlier this year downgraded 15 banks, said investors looking to jump on potential bargains must be willing to have long-term investment horizons.
"People want to see results today, and I don't see banks returning to favor in the next six months," he said. "The ride for the next six months is pretty rocky."