Financial stocks were mixed Wednesday. Earnings announcements and economic data dominated trading, and analysts reduced their ratings for two of the companies that reported on Tuesday, Firstar Corp. and Bank of America Corp.
Firstar was downgraded by several analysts. Jon Balkind at Fox-Pitt, Kelton Inc. cut the Milwaukee-based company to "attractive" from "buy," Christopher M. Mutasci of Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. to "market perform" from "buy," and Kenneth M. Hemauer at Robert W. Baird & Co. to "market perform" from "market outperform." Firstar fell 3.27%, to $22.1875 a share.
Lawrence W. Cohn at Ryan, Beck & Co. in Livingston, N.J., reduced his rating for Bank of America to "hold" from "buy." He said that his reasons had less to do with risk than with price.
"At $51, it is still a cheap stock," he said but added that in this economic climate he does not see much upside potential for the Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company, which reported per-share earnings of 85 cents for the fourth quarter and $4.72 for last year.
Analysts said that Bank of America's high level of syndicated loans and exposure to the troubled California utility companies could hurt earnings if the economy slows more than expected. Its shares were down 2.7% on Wednesday, to $49.5625, but they have gained 8.96% so far this year.
James R. Bradshaw of D.A. Davidson & Co. in Great Falls, Mont., agreed that right now macroeconomic factors are more important than earnings to Bank of America's stock. Expecting a slow first quarter but a turnaround in the third quarter, he said, he reiterates his "buy" rating. He said he does not see abnormal risks for the company unless a recession develops and called its business mix "nicely balanced."
Thomas F. Theurkauf at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., however, wrote in a research note Wednesday that he still sees risk in owning B of A shares because of the possibility of further disappointing earnings. He reiterated his "market perform" rating.
Meanwhile, the Department of Labor reported a 0.2% increase in the consumer price index, and the Federal Reserve Board announced that industrial production fell 0.6% in December.
"Despite this weak report," wrote senior economist Stan Shipley of Merrill Lynch & Co. with respect to industrial production "we expect economic growth of around 2% in the fourth quarter and 1.5% in the first quarter. The Fed will ease aggressively to stem any further weakness, and we project the fed funds rate will be at 5% by May."
The American Banker index of top 50 banks ended down 0.83% and its index of 225 banks was down 0.82%. The thrift index was up 3.32%. It was led by Washington Mutual Inc., which reported fourth-quarter earnings up 94 cents per share and was up 8.53%, to $48.50, and Golden State, which rose 5.33%, to $27.1875.