In an encouraging kickoff to earnings reporting season, Hibernia Corp., one of the weak spots for bank earnings in 1999, said it expected to meet analyst estimates for the first quarter.

The announcement boded well for other banking companies' results, analysts said.

The New Orleans company's profit outlook accompanied a release saying it planned to buy back 7.5 million shares of its stock. Analysts said they expect more such good news from other banks in the coming weeks - namely, few surprises and solid, albeit not exceptional, earnings.

"In general, I don't think it is going to be a great quarter, but it should be positive," said Charles N. Ernst, an equity analyst with Putnam, Lovell, de Guardiola & Thornton Inc. in New York. "There is going to be some seasonal weakness, and revenue growth will be slower, but we expect expenses to be pretty well controlled and think there might be some share buybacks announced, which will help."

Loan problems emerged at Hibernia in March 1999, when United Companies Financial Corp. of Baton Rouge, La., filed for bankruptcy. Hibernia, which had a $33 million unsecured exposure to United, cut profit targets and raised reserves as a result. Fourth-quarter nonperforming assets were also higher than many analysts had hoped.

The credit problems took their toll on Hibernia shares. The company's stock has dropped almost 40% from a midsummer peak and closed Monday at $10.625, up 6.25 cents.

Hibernia said it expects to report earnings of 31 cents a share in the first quarter, which would be a 72% jump over the same quarter of 1999 and in line with First Call consensus estimates. The company will officially announce results Thursday.

While Hibernia has not had to tone down estimates for the quarter, others have. First Security Corp. of Salt Lake City warned in early March that its results would fall well short of expectations, hit by pressure from rising interest rates and the after-effects of a botched computer system upgrade. And First Tennessee National Corp. in Memphis said that slowness in its mortgage business would hurt results.

Addressing potential earnings shortfalls ahead of time has become important for banks because of the punishment Wall Street metes out for negative earnings surprises. Union Planters Corp., for example, in January unexpectedly missed consensus forecasts by 12 cents in the fourth quarter, which caused its shares to plummet to their lowest levels in more than three years.

Analysts said they do not expect any unannounced misses this quarter. Instead, most said they expect the first quarter of 2000 to look a lot like last year's results.

In a report to investors, Ryan, Beck & Co. analysts Lawrence W. Cohn and Heather L. Dilbeck wrote that they expect banks with large capital market operations to benefit from equity underwriting and trading results, as they did last year. Banks heavy in trust and processing businesses, meanwhile, should be helped by high transaction levels and generally higher asset values.

"To the extent there are problems, they tend to be most obvious at the traditional super regional banks," they wrote, "where several companies are still suffering indigestion from botched acquisitions or are struggling with slow revenue growth."

First Union Corp. and Bank One Corp. were cited as suffering from deal indigestion and KeyCorp and National City Corp. from slower revenue growth. The expectation of strong earnings announcements was drawing investors to bank stocks on Monday, as they pulled money out of Internet stocks.

In the latest selloff, the technology-laden Nasdaq index was off 258.2 points, or 5.81%, to 4188.2, while the Dow Jones industrial average was up 75.08 points, 0.68%, to 11,186.56. American Banker's ndex of 225 banks was up 0.75%, and its index of the top 50 banks was up 2.23%.

Among the big gainers were Citigroup Inc., whose shares rose $3.25, or 5.51%, to $62.25; Bank of New York, up $2.125, or 5.26%, to $42.5625; and Fifth Third Bancorp, up $3.75, or 4%, to $97.50.

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