Shares of Chase Manhattan Corp. and a host of superregional banks rose strongly Thursday as merger speculation returned to the sector.

Traders said a generally optimistic market climate amid robust economic conditions - plus the afterglow from this week's news that Fleet Financial Group Inc. plans to buy BankBoston Corp.-prompted a fresh run-up in stocks.

"It's takeout mania," said Eric Rothmann, a bank analyst at Stephens & Co. in Little Rock, Ark. After a long lull in bank dealmaking, "investors are champing at the bit for big mergers. They want banks to have that urge to merge again."

Chase attracted attention because investors say they believe it is in the best position to make an acquisition and its management may be ready to do so.

On Thursday, Chase's stock rose $1.50, to $83.875, the first daily gain the stock has tallied since March 10.

Speculation was centered on the renewed notion that Chase may buy Merrill Lynch & Co.-though Merrill reportedly rejected Chase's overtures last year.

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and Mellon Bank Corp. were also suggested as possible Chase partners by some analysts gathered in New York for the Bank and Financial Analysts Association's annual spring conference. The Pittsburgh banking company is coveted because it owns the Dreyfus Funds.

Merrill's stock rose sharply Thursday with other brokerage stocks.

Chase was probably the focus of attention because it has gone the longest of any of the bigger banking companies without a major deal.

"Granted, Chase has done fine on its own so far, but the bank doesn't have a trading arm or brokerage. Investors feel that they shouldn't get too far behind everyone else before they make a move," one trader said.

Most market experts said they agree that Chase needs to add equity underwriting capacity if it wants to expand its global reach, though the lack of such activity spared the company from the setbacks suffered by other banks and investment firms last fall.

"Chase is the one saying that they need equity underwriting," said Stephen Biggar, a bank analyst at S&P Equity Group. "Any time you try to build that business internally, it takes forever, and Chase wants to go up against some very well-entrenched players."

In fact, "Chase may have missed a reasonably good opportunity to buy an investment bank in the third and fourth quarter when the world was collapsing and prices were far down," he said.

It is also no secret that Chase is looking for an asset manager, another analyst said.

"Mellon is a good fit because Frank Cahouet is no longer" chief executive, said an analyst at this week's conference. "People have said that board members were upset that he rejected the Bank of New York's offer last year. And they should be. Bank of New York offered Mellon six times book, and where is Mellon's stock trading now? Three times book. I mean come on!"

Speculation about Chase may be the talk of traders, but others dismissed the notion. "I don't think anything is going on," said Raphael Soifer, a bank analyst at Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. in New York. "I just think rumors are flying around.

"The reason they haven't made a deal is because the natural targets for them are not interested in merging," Mr. Soifer said. "And not just with Chase but with any commercial bank because commercial banks have little to offer them other than capital."

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