Bank One Corp., which has been restructuring since early last year, on Wednesday got its fifth sell rating since that reorganization began, and Wall Street analysts say its turnaround may take longer than anticipated.
A sell rating is unusual in the banking sector, but Chicago-based Bank One has been drawing more analyst criticism than any other banking company, and from more than just the usual bearish suspects.
The latest sell rating came from Andrew B. Collins, the U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray analyst who has initiated coverage of Bank One and several other companies.
In our judgment, Bank Ones relatively new senior management team has made several good moves toward improving this broken franchise, but now the real hard work begins, he wrote in a research note.
In addition to Mr. Collins and two well-known bears Michael L. Mayo of Prudential Securities and Charles W. Peabody of Mitchell Securities David Ritter of Argus Research Corp. in New York and Peyton N. Green of Sterne, Agee & Leach in Birmingham, Ala., also have sell ratings on the stock.
Investors had welcomed Bank Ones new chief executive officer, James Dimon, in March 2000 with great enthusiasm. From Feb. 18 through April 3 of last year the companys stock price rose 52.06%, to $36.875 a share.
However, since May 31 of this year, when the stock was trading at $39.60, its price has been falling. But considering how difficult it is going to be to put the company on a growth path, analysts say they are surprised by its comparably high price-to-expected-earnings multiple.
Mr. Collins wrote that Bank Ones multiple is lofty at 11.9 times our 2002 EPS estimate of $2.90, particularly for an expense-driven story. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., and FleetBoston Financial Corp., for which he also initiated coverage, are trading at significantly lower multiples of their expected earnings, he said.
Mr. Green said that the stock price is one major reasons for keeping Bank Ones rating at sell. He said he might consider a better rating if the price came down.
Analysts have repeatedly reduced their profit targets for Bank One, and its credit quality problems are expected to linger for several quarters. The company, which declined to comment for this story, is scheduled to report its second-quarter earnings next week.
Steven Wharton, a buy-side analyst with Loomis, Sayles & Co. LP in Boston, said that the current stock price is not compelling for a company whose earnings are expected to decline. Loomis Sayles has no position in Bank One, but Mr. Wharton said he might consider buying the stock in the low $30s.
Frank Barkocy, the director of research at Keefe Managers Inc., said he is short-selling the stock and wants the price to reach $28 to $30 before he considers buying more of it.
Bank One stock fell during Wednesday morning trading but recovered in the afternoon and closed up 1.45%, at $35.01. The American Banker index of 225 banks climbed 0.03%, while the Standard & Poors 500 index fell 0.11%.
Most analysts have kept Bank One on a lukewarm rating, but some have given the company positive reviews, including Richard X. Bove of Raymond James & Associates Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla., who has the stock on a strong buy, and Susan Roth of Credit Suisse First Boston Corp., who said she feels strongly about the company and is keeping its stock on buy.
In her latest report on Bank One, dated June 1, Ms. Roth wrote: The turnaround of Bank One is on plan, contradicting the view of many analysts who argued that investors might have overestimated how quickly Bank One would improve its operations.
Ms. Roth argued that the stock deserves a much higher valuation, because the companys long-term outlook is favorable, despite the economic headwind Mr. Dimon is fighting now.
However, Mr. Wharton said Bank One might need until 2003 to get out of trouble, while Mr. Collins said that its earnings might not stop dropping until well into next year. Why should investors be so patient?
In addition, more and more analysts are paying attention to predictions that U.S. consumer delinquencies will continue to rise.
Analysts say rising delinquencies would increase the pressure on Bank One, whose already significant credit card business would get even bigger with the pending acquisition of Wachovia Corp.s portfolio. (See story, front page.)
The jury that judges whether the consumer keeps the economy away from recession is still out, Mr. Green said.