With their share prices surging, Citigroup Inc. and Mellon Bank Corp. announced stock splits on Tuesday.
The companies joined Amsouth Bancorp. and Firstar Corp., among others in recent weeks, that have moved to boost their number of shares and lower the price of each, to widen their appeal.
"It's a sign of the times," said Kevin Timmons, a banking analyst with First Albany Corp. "A lot of the companies' shares have gotten to levels that would justify their splitting."
Citigroup of New York plans a 3-for-2 stock split. Pittsburgh-based Mellon set a 2-for-1 split. Citigroup's stock price rose Tuesday by $2.3125, to $72.9375, and Mellon's was off 6.25 cents, at $70.9375.
"It is a sign that management has confidence in the outlook for the period ahead," said Ronald I. Mandle, a banking analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
Mr. Mandle, who recently raised his performance estimates for Citigroup, said the split is justified, given his expectations for the company.
Citigroup co-chairman John S. Reed said the split underscores that the teaming of the old Citicorp with Travelers Group is on track.
"This reflects our confidence that the potential of our groundbreaking merger is on its way to becoming a reality," Mr. Reed said.
By making shares more affordable to retail investors, the tactic is "a way to make the split between retail and institutional ownership more even," said James McDermott, chairman of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
But the moves do not affect the fundamental value of a company's shares, Mr. McDermott emphasized. "From a purist standpoint it makes no difference at all. You're just increasing the number of shares."
Bankers assert that splits are an easy and tax-free way to place their stock within reach of more investors.
The move can give current and presumably friendly investors bigger stakes in their companies. A likely consequence is that an unwelcome acquisition bid could be rebuffed by a flood of support from core holders.
Banks also use splits to boost the number of shares in their coffers so they can pounce on acquisition opportunities.
Analysts expect other banking company splits will follow.
"You get above $50 and people start thinking about it," Mr. Timmons said.
That could put splits on the radar screens of companies such as BankAmerica Corp., whose shares are in the $80 range, Chase Manhattan Corp., now around $70, and J.P. Morgan & Co., at about $135.
Timing can vary. Chase Manhattan waited until its price hit around $140 before announcing a stock split last year. Another split could now be in the offing, albeit at a lower level.
Banking companies don't want to split too frequently because of the administrative expense involved, industry observers said.
Not everyone is sold on stock splits. M&T Bank Corp. is comfortable with shares that trade in the $500 range.
"Stock splits do not inherently increase the value of the company," said Gary S. Paul, senior vice president with M&T. "So we don't feel the need to."
He added, "We feel the share price is a symbol of our strength," Mr. Paul said.