Stock splits are surging as banking companies seek to widen the appeal of their shares and discourage unwelcome buyout bids.
Bank and thrift splits have been occurring at the rate of more than one a day since July 1, and announcements continue to pile up.
"It appears to be a growing phenomenon," said Sean Ryan, banking analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co.
The primary motivation is to multiply the number of shares of current- and presumably friendly-investors. A likely consequence is that the power of unfriendly attackers would be diluted, as stated in a letter to Fleet Financial Group shareholders from general counsel William C. Mutterperl.
Banks also use splits to boost the number of shares in their own coffers to pounce on acquisition opportunities.
Mr. Mutterperl's letter, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday, seeks permission from shareholders to issue more stock than necessary to cover the split. That practice is becoming more common, analysts said, as banks want the flexibility to sell stock to supporters.
Fleet of Boston and Bank of New York Co., which plan 2-for-1 splits, and the credit card specialist MBNA Corp., at 3-for-2, were among at least a half dozen in the industry making announcements this week.
Smaller institutions are also in the swing of it, such as $1.5 billion- asset JeffBanks Inc. of Philadelphia, which disclosed plans Thursday for a 5-for-3 split.
Market observers say banks appear to have surpassed other industries in their aggressiveness to split stock-even though their market momentum has recently slowed.
Nevertheless, after rising steadily for years in a record bull market, bank stock prices have reached heights that managements view as in need of adjustment.
Bank of New York has in the past split its stock when the share price neared $60, said senior vice president Paul Leyden. The price closed Thursday at $66.50, up $1.
Bankers assert that splits are an easy, tax-free way to make their stocks more affordable to more investors, especially retail buyers.
"We can reach more people," said Mr. Leyden of Bank of New York's move to cut its price in half without compromising shareholders' equity.
Trigger prices can vary. Chase Manhattan Corp. waited until its shares were close to $140 before announcing a 2-for-1 split March 18. Chase's price is now at $75.
Not every banking company is rushing to this bandwagon.
M&T Bank Corp. does not see the need, despite a share price well above $500. "You don't change the economics of a corporation by dividing it into smaller pieces," asserted M&T senior vice president Gary S. Paul.
The Buffalo-based company keeps it simple for investors to be able to calculate how much shares that were worth $5 less than 20 years ago have appreciated. Moreover, renowned investor Warren E. Buffett owns a major M&T stake, and he is no fan of stock splitting.