Will FleetBoston Financial Corp. enter the thrift turf wars in New York with its own bid to acquire Dime Bancorp?
Melville, N.Y.-based North Fork Bancorp opened the door to that possibility last week by releasing Fleet from an agreement not to bid. But market watchers say they are increasingly convinced that Fleet has no designs on a solo bid for Dime.
For one thing, Fleet already gets a shot at buying $2 billion of deposits and 17 branches of its choice from a combined North Fork-Dime. For another, Fleet's investment of $250 million in support of North Fork's own hostile bid gives the Boston-based banking company the ability to buy additional shares of the new company.
"It offers them terms that are extremely attractive," said Lawrence Cohn, an analyst at Ryan Beck & Co. "They've basically been bribed."
Indeed, Fleet seemed to answer the question in a statement last week. "We continue to support North Fork in its tender offer," said Eugene McQuade, Fleet's chief financial officer. "We believe it's now in the best interest of all involved for Dime and North Fork to reach a conclusion in this matter."
Analysts said a bid for Dime would put a damper on the goodwill Fleet has built with investors in recent months after a series of strong earnings reports.
"Fleet has political capital that it can use with the investment community," said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst at Tucker Anthony Cleary Gull in Portland, Maine. "They have said they would deliver the numbers this year. Why would they clutter them up with another deal?"
"Dime isn't big enough to use up that political capital," Mr. Cassidy added. "Anything they do would have to be a blockbuster, not a little savings bank in New York."
Fleet has aspired in recent years to build its fee-generating activities, particularly in brokerage, asset management, and capital markets. Analysts said a thrift operation such as Dime would not fit with that strategy. "They think they can raise deposits more cheaply," Mr. Cohn said.
Meanwhile, Fleet has had its own problems at home. Conversions in Massachusetts from the old BankBoston Corp. system to the new Fleet system hit a big snag this month, when 1.2 million BankBoston customer accounts and 80,000 small-business accounts were turned over.
According to an article in the Boston Globe, the volume of calls to Fleet's customer service line tripled from noon May 14 through noon May 15. Former BankBoston customers reported problems making deposits and getting account balance information. In some instances, joint accounts were unlinked during the conversion, according to the Globe article.
In addition, ATM access codes caused glitches. BankBoston used to require an eight-digit personal identification number but had recently given customers the ability to use just four of those numbers. Fleet's system, which uses four digits, needed the full eight-digit code from BankBoston customers, many of whom had forgotten them.
Just a few weeks ago Wyomissing, Pa.-based Sovereign Bancorp encountered a similar problem with the former BankBoston ATMs it was converting in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
A Fleet spokesman said the banking company did not experience systemic problems, however. "We expect certain idiosyncratic customer issues, but there weren't any large scale problems."