Shares of Firstar Corp., 1998's biggest gainer among major bank stocks, stumbled out of the New Year's starting gate Monday after three generally friendly analysts said the price had gotten too high.
The stock closed at $90.8125, off $2.1875, after reports by Lori Appelbaum of Goldman, Sachs & Co., Fred Cummings of McDonald Investments, and Eric Rothmann of Stephens Inc.
"Shares have gotten ahead of themselves," said Ms. Appelbaum, urging Goldman clients to sit tight for now.
Mr. Cummings was a bit more blunt, downgrading the stock several notches to an investment rating of "hold" from "aggressive buy."
Mr. Rothmann predicted a "modest softening in the share price," to about $85 over the next several weeks.
The analysts emphasized that they like the Milwaukee bank for the longer term, but they apparently felt their praise for the company's basic operations needed clarification in light of its recently surging stock price.
Powered by expected benefits from the merger of Firstar and Star Banc Corp. under the aegis of chief executive Jerry A. Grundhofer, Firstar's shares tallied a 62% gain last year-more than any other major bank stock tracked by American Banker.
Some 25% of Firstar's increase came in the closing two weeks of December, in anticipation of the stock's yearend addition to the widely watched Standard & Poor's 500 stock index.
After navigating the near-term weakness, shares of Firstar are positioned to hit $120 within 12 months, according to Mr. Rothmann of Stephens, who raised his price target from $100 in a note to clients Monday. He retained his "buy" rating on the stock.
Explaining his rating change, Mr. Cummings said the stock "has gotten ahead of fundamentals." He said that will likely prompt some profit taking that will weigh down the price of shares.
But he cited a "strong revenue outlook, superb earnings visibility, and an exceptional management team" as reasons for keeping a close eye on the shares.
"This is a stock we expect to revisit after it establishes a more normalized trading range," Mr. Cummings said.
Ms. Appelbaum also expects some selling of Firstar shares by both speculative investors and some long-term holders who want to book profits.
The stock "remains a keeper" for the longer term, Ms. Appelbaumn said. Indeed, it remains on Goldman Sach's "recommended list" of U.S. equities.
"The company's high growth, strong profitability outlook is intact and the merger between Star Banc and Firstar is generally progressing as planned," Ms. Appelbaum said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Appelbaum recommended that clients also give some attention to SouthTrust Corp., Birmingham, Ala. With the addition of Firstar to the S&P 500, SouthTrust is now the largest midcap bank stock not trading on the index.
The banking company is currently the most attractively valued financial institution of its size, according to Goldman Sachs' trading criteria, she said. "Our fundamental outlook for the company remains solid."
Shares of SouthTrust rose $1.625, to $38.5625, for the day.