The jubilance of First Union Corp. executives as they announced their bank's acquisition of Wheat First Butcher Singer Inc. was interrupted briefly when a listener to a conference call asked how the deal would affect First Union's earnings.

"We expect it will be accretive to earnings immediately upon closing," said G. Kennedy Thompson, co-head of First Union's capital markets unit, on Wednesday, repeating information already in a news release.

Yes, but by how much?

Mr. Thompson was silent. A spokeswoman later said the deal would be "modestly accretive" to earnings.

Such vagueness is typical among banks buying brokerages.

When banks buy other banks, they usually project how their shareholders will benefit from the deal. For example, in announcing its purchase of First Fidelity Bancorp in 1995, First Union told analysts that the deal would help the bank's share value rise 10% per year. Specifically, the bank said, earnings should be $6.31 per share for 1996 and $7.23 in 1997.

But there are so many variables to integrating a brokerage-from stock market performance to retaining top traders-that even banks with great experience handling acquisitions shy away from predicting how the deals will affect their bottom lines.

"They know this is a famously volatile business," said Nancy Bush, associate director of research at Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. "They don't want to project something, experience a market downturn, and see earnings fall off the Earth."

Bank officials say they don't project how brokerage mergers will affect earnings because the deals are so small.

Susan Carr, director of investor relations at NationsBank, said the bank projects its $1.2 billion acquisition of Montgomery Securities will add to earnings immediately after closing, but she didn't elaborate.

"Obviously, it's not a significant transaction, so the impact to earnings relative to our existing businesses in not substantial," Ms. Carr said.

When Bankers Trust New York Corp. announced in April that it would purchase Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., it told analysts only that the deal would be accretive starting the second year after closing. It has since determined that the deal should add between 70 cents and $1.10 to the company's share price starting in 1999.

BankAmerica Corp. projects its purchase of Robertson, Stephens & Co. will "break even for three years" and then be accretive, "although it could be earlier," a spokesman said.

Investment bankers say banks are reluctant to make any earnings projections because they have no idea how much of the talent they paid for will remain.

For example, 14 of Chicago Research and Trading Group Ltd.'s 20 partners have left since the options trading firm was bought by NationsBank in 1993- with 10 departing after their "golden handcuff" arrangements expired.

Banks are offering generous incentive packages to keep investment bankers, brokers, and traders. BankAmerica, which spent $540 million to acquire Robertson Stephens, has set aside $295 million to retain key employees.

First Union is offering selected Wheat First employees $70 million in stock. But some question whether this will give impatient investment bankers, accustomed to being rewarded quickly and in cash, a reason to stay.

"If that stock turns out to be fully valued now, First Union's going to have a problem," one investment banker said. (See related story, page 8.)

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