merger fray, a top executive said last week. "There are many directions this could take," said Dina Dublon, chief financial officer. She stressed that Chase has no specific target at the moment and that "the circumstances would have to be right" in terms of top- management and corporate-culture compatibility. But she did not rule out a merger that might strengthen a product line or broaden Chase geographically-a significant signal from a company that steered clear of last year's dealmaking frenzy even though it was regarded as big and strong enough to handle a cross-industry deal or a mega- transaction with another big bank. "We intend to determine our own future rather than let others determine it," Ms. Dublon said in an interview. For now, she said, the strategy and outlook are unchanged: "We can achieve our financial goals-and they are pretty hefty financial goals- without any other transactions. We are operating from a position of strength." Chase lost its No. 1 ranking in banking assets last year. BankAmerica Corp. surpassed it by merging with NationsBank Corp., and the new Wells Fargo & Co., after the acquisition by Norwest Corp., has drawn significantly closer. The largest bank holding company, Citigroup Inc., has almost twice Chase's $356 billion of total assets. A long-time executive vice president with Chase, Ms. Dublon was promoted last month to the vacant spot of chief financial officer. Her comments underscored Chase's previous statements that it is committed to staying competitive through deals that add value for shareholders. Analysts have said Chase needs to add investment banking prowess, especially on the equity side, and to bulk up to compete in retail banking. American Express Co., Merrill Lynch & Co., and J.P. Morgan & Co. have been mentioned as companies that could fulfill those needs. First Union Corp.'s name has come up in recent speculation. The Charlotte, N.C., banking company "is of similar size, has the retail and securities operations" that Chase may covet, and "has articulated a desire to grow through purchases," said Sean Ryan, banking analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co. A spokeswoman from First Union declined to comment on that possible pairing. Chase triggered the megamerger wave of the late 1990s in its 1996 merger with Chemical Banking Corp. Chemical, the nominal acquirer in that deal, had previously absorbed another New York money-center company, Manufacturers Hanover Corp. Last year Chase made selective, smaller business purchases, such as securities processing operations. Ms. Dublon said Chase would continue to do such things, provided they were in keeping with stated ambitions for its three key businesses areas: national consumer, wholesale, and global services. But in the wake of the 1998 megamergers, Chase is "part of a shrinking universe," Mr. Ryan said. Chase "has lots of opportunity to grow," and in fact may benefit from not being active, because it does not have to clear the hurdles others are facing, said Ronald Mandle, banking analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "You're not looking at a situation where they have to do something dramatic," Mr. Mandle said. Ms. Dublon agreed, saying, "We do not have our back against the wall."

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