Barely a decade after failing to build coast-to-coast franchises, U.S. money-center banks are barely interested as interstate banking moves closer to reality.
With once-Napoleonic ambitions dashed, Citicorp, Chase Manhattan Bank, Chemical Banking Corp., and other New York City-based money-centers are today more focused on building their local franchise and adding to national lines of business than on bulking up on traditional branches.
"I think they have decided they can survive without a national branch presence, which is all you get today with most acquisitions," said Frank DeSantis, analyst at Donaldson Lufidn Jenrette Securities Corp. "Besides, they are at a strategic disadvantage because of their [stock] multiple."
Indeed, the money-centers have been trading near book value in recent days. while the fast-growing - and acquisitive - regionals have multiples at or above twice book.
The banking giants are not apologetic that they are focused on things other than geographic diversification even though some analysts believe it could leave them vulnerable longer term.
"We view ourselves as having a natural retail franchise running from Boston to Washington," said John Hanley, vice president for government relations at Chase. "That is the region you will see Chase focusing on over the next few years in terms of a domestic retail presence."
Others see a more profitable future in developing wholesale corporate banking, capital markets, and niche businesses.
At Citicorp, still the nation's largest bank, chairman John Reed has targeted expansion abroad as most important for a company that draws 80% of revenues from international operations.
"Clearly, the world's emerging economies are growing much more rapidly than the developed part of the world," Mr. Reed said in a recent speech. "Because we at Citicorp are looking for long-term evolutionary success, we want to be in businesses that, over time, will ensure that success for the company."
A company spokesman reiterated that philosophy recently when asked whether Citicorp will benefit from interstate banking. "We have no desire to blanket the country with branches." the official said.
It wasn't always that way. In the early 1980s, money-centers Wied to set up nationwide banking networks, but were stymied by regional banking pacts that would be irrelevant under the proposed federal law.
Troubles elsewhere sapped profits and deflated their stock price.
"A funny thing happened on the way to building the empire," said Raphael Soifer, analyst at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York City. "First the banks were hit by the loans to developing countries crisis and then the real estate problems came along.
"They're less ambitious in terms of national expansion, but their ambitions have changed with the business, too;
While money-centers were dealing with those problems, superregionals from Charlotte to Columbus, Ohio began building their multiregion franchises and today are well-entrenched competitors.
For the New York-based companies to repeat their 1980s ambitions, it would take billions of dollars to create a competitive infrastructure.
"New York banks went at it [interstate banking] with both hands tied behind their back and never succeeded in establishing more than a beachhead in consumer and middle-market banking," said Diane B. Glossman, a banking analyst at Salomon Brothers.
Today, money-centers are left mainly with the failed thrifts and banks they acquired in disparate states.
Citicorp, for example, acquired a federal savings bank in California with 116 branches, another savings bank with three branches in Connecticut, a 16branch savings bank in Washington, D.C., and other thrifts in Illinois, Maryland, and Virginia.
Chase bought a bank in Arizona, while Chemical acquired a large retail and middle-market banking presence in Texas with the purchase of Texas Commerce Bank.
Analysts give Chemical high marks for its success in Texas, but say that success is not likely to be duplicated elsewhere. They say money-centers generally have not been as successful at generating the profits from those subsidiaries.
As a result, Ms. Glossman says, money-centers decided that even if they had the money, "it may not have been an optimal way to spend those resources."
Even though the benefit may be limited, money-centers still support the interstate banking bill, which could face a final vote in the U.S. Senate later this month.
"We've always supported changes because they rationalize and open the financial services market to competition," says Doug Kidd, a spokesman at Bankers Trust Corp.
To be certain, even though they no long have coast-to-coast ambitions. the money-centers are expected to benefit from the cost-savings that could result from merging charters.
Nationally, banks have predicted that such savings could amount to at least $2 billion annually.
They also continue to focus on selectively developing nationwide products such as data processing, mortgage lending, credit cards, leasing, factoring, and asset management.
Earlier this year, for example, Chase acquired American Residential, a California-based mortgage bank, which will make it one of the nation's top five home leaders.
Rival Chemical also announced plans to acquire New Jersey-based mortgage company Margaretten Financial.
Meanwhile, Bank of New York has made a number of acquisitions in the processing business. The bank earher this year also acquired Bank of Boston's factoring business and picked up corporate trust operations from Barnett Banks and Central fidelity.
Bank of New York is unique among the New York City-based banks as a company known to be looking at possible merger combinations in neighboring markets or farther afield.
"They have said that they will go anywhere at the right price," said DLJ's Mr. DeSantis referring to Bank of New York.
Analysts note, too, that New York-based banks face few restrictions in the most attractive markets even if the interstate banking bill fails.
Longer term, though, analysts concede that their absence from national acquisitions could leave money-centers at a disadvantage. Already, companies like NationsBank Corp. and BankAmerica Corp. are becoming formidable competition m the wholesale businesses like loan syndications.
"Some of these [regional] banks have served Fortune 500 companies for a long time," said Ms. Glossman. 'They're known to these companies and will probably do business with them."
At least one executive at a New York money-center isn't worried.
"We're already seeing competition from regionals in wholesale markets," he said, adding matterof-facfiy, "it may take a while. but we're expecting increased competition in all our markets."