Brimming with profits and emboldened by big-ticket mergers, bankers are full of optimism.

Although many experts still see their future as one of financial irrelevance, banks have been generously rewarding their shareholders recently. During 1995, for example, the stocks of major regional banks and money-center banks easily outpaced the 34% rise in the S&P 500. "Deaf, dumb, and blind," one bank analyst remarked, "you could pick winners in the bank stock world last year."

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