For two agonizing weeks, executives at banks throughout New England have waited for Fleet Financial Group and BankBoston Corp. to announce the winning bidders for the loans, deposits, and branches being divested as part of their merger.
At stake are 292 branches, $12.5 billion of deposits, and $5 billion of loans.
Fleet and BankBoston have repeatedly declined to comment on the announcement's timing. Based on statements this summer by executives from both companies, most observers had expected the announcement to come more than a week ago, on Aug. 16.
Last Friday, New England bankers and Wall Street analysts were abuzz with speculation that the announcement would come this Monday. It did not.
Market watchers and bankers have said in recent days that they are growing increasingly frustrated. "It's supposed to be imminent, but we're still waiting to hear," said an exasperated Connecticut banker, who declined to be named.
"There certainly are a lot of anxious bankers out there," said Ed Shea, a consultant at Institutional Performance Group in Matick, Mass.
Analysts attributed the delay to a confluence of factors, including the large number of bidders. Fleet has acknowledged that it got dozens of proposals. But late summer vacations and continuing negotiations between the merging companies and the Department of Justice have also been a factor. Market watchers, bankers, and consultants who have been following the divestiture said talks with the Justice Department are the most likely culprit.
"It's a great poker game for them," said George Bicher, an analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown.
A spokeswoman for BankBoston said the companies could not comment because of confidentiality agreements but added, "we are in ongoing negotiations with the Department of Justice." A spokesman for Fleet added that the announcement could come this week or next.
A short list of likely winners has emerged. HSBC USA Inc., the Buffalo-based division of London's HSBC Holdings, is a current favorite; Comerica Inc. in Detroit is also said to be in the running, as are Charter One Financial Inc. of Cleveland and Wyomissing, Pa.-based Sovereign Bancorp.
HSBC, Comerica, and Sovereign declined to comment. Charter One did not return a phone call.
Investment bankers familiar with some of the bids said Fleet has priced the entire package at $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. The Fleet spokesman confirmed that range.
Observers said most of the package would go to one out-of-region bank. A separate, smaller package of Massachusetts branches, deposits, and loans is expected to be carved out of the whole and divided among two or three community banks. Fleet declined to comment.
HSBC, formerly known as Marine Midland Bank in the United States, is widely viewed as the front-runner in the bidding for the bulk of the package, analysts said. The $33.8 billion-asset bank is considered to be the best candidate to come in and compete with the planned Fleet Boston Corp., and it has a deep-pocketed corporate parent.
"They can write big checks," said Nancy Bush, an analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co.
It would be HSBC's second major acquisition in the United States this year. In May, it agreed to buy New York-based Republic New York Corp. for $10.3 billion. That deal would greatly expand HSBC's presence in New York City.