Fleet Financial Group, a laggard among bank stocks lately, gained Tuesday after its shares received a "buy" rating from Salomon Brothers Inc.

Fleet, based in Providence, R.I., was up 50 cents a share, to $32, in late trading. Other bank stocks were mixed, while stocks in general moved lower.

Last week, S.G. Warburg & Co. reiterated its "buy" rating on Fleet, saying weakness in the stock has been "unjustified."

Fleet was among the worst-performing bank stocks in August, falling 9.6% during the month. As of Aug. 31, the shares were down 6.5% for the year, a rare negative in a mostly positive period for banking issues.

Ratings Bolster Bank Stacks

Salomon's upgrading of Fleet from a prior "hold" recommendation was among several rating changes that helped boost banking stocks Tuesday.

Salomon also upgraded PNC Bank Corp., Pittsburgh, to "buy" from "hold."

NatWest Securities Corp. moved Chemical Banking Corp. up to "trading buy" from "accumulate."

John D. Leonard, a banking analyst at Salomon, said both the Fleet and PNC upgradings were part of a move to refine the firm's bank-stock investment strategy.

Good Potential Seen

With most bank stocks trading in a range from 9.0 to 9.5 times estimated 1994 earnings, Mr. Leonard said Salomon was focusing on selected banks with strong upside potential.

While economic growth in New England may remain lackluster, "Fleet has a very decent business mix," he said, "and the restructuring and expense-reduction program it has hinted at could add 50 or 60 cents per share by 1995."

Fleet trades at just eight times Salomon's estimate of its 1994 earnings and 140% of book value, while banks in general trade at 9.3 times 1994 earnings and 165% of book value.

|Strong Rebound' Predicted

"That is a 15% upward move just to catch up with the rest of the group, and we tend to believe they will catch up, although probably not more than that," Mr. Leonard said.

Warburg analyst Francis X. Suozzo said Fleet's stock has been hurt by "concerns about Fleet's earnings quality, high operating expenses, and the sluggish pace of decline in nonperforming assets."

But he asserted. that Fleet "is in the midst of a strong rebound in earnings" that should lift earnings per share by 64% in 1993, 24% in 1994, and 17% in 1995.

Lower credit provisions and improved operating efficiency are the main factors behind his expectations for profit growth.

"Investors are missing a superb buying opportunity in Fleet at current levels," he said, "with potential upside of 30% over a 6-12-month time frame" as its earnings progress continues.

Mr. Suozzo said Fleet shares could hit the $40 range in that period.

He noted that Fleet is "one of the few recovery stocks left" among regional banks because its reported earnings "have not yet caught up with earnings power."

Mr. Leonard said he raised PNC's stock to "buy" because it belonged in the same category with superregionals like First Union Corp., Charlotte, N.C. "They have quality of management, discipline in the acquisition process, and some growth in home markets," he said. In late trading, PNC was up 37.5 cents a share, to $29.75.

Chemical was boosted by NatWest to "trading buy" because "investors appear more inclined to focus holdings among the money-centers," said the firm's banking analyst, Stephen Berman.

For the money-center," banks, prospective gains "from global trading activities and further improvements in credit quality should carry earnings through the current weak environment."

Mr. Berman also raised his 1994 earnings estimate for Chemical to $5.30 per share, from $ 5.10. His 1993 profit forecast of $4.30 per share for the New York bank company is unchanged. Last year, Chemical earned $2.72 per share.

In late trading, Chemical shares were up 50 cents, to $41.

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