Hibernia Corp., the New Orleans banking company that has struggled with rising nonperforming assets and a sluggish regional economy, is showing new signs of vigor.
Its shares hit a 52-week high this month after better-than-expected second-quarter earnings, and analysts said the company, under new management, has been making progress in turning itself around.
But merger rumors, fueled by statements from the company's own management, have had at least as large a role in the stock runup. In May, chief executive officer C. Herbert Boydstun, who was appointed in December to succeed Stephen A. Hansel, indicated his willingness to entertain offers.
Potential suitors could include San Francisco's Wells Fargo & Co., if only because it is known as a buyer of underperforming companies, and Regions Financial Corp. of Birmingham, Ala., because its management has praised Mr. Boydstun's accomplishments, said Brock Vandervliet, an analyst at Lehman Brothers.
Mr. Vandervliet, who has a "market outperform" rating on Hibernia shares, says the company will probably see no offers for a while. "They are definitely amenable to a sale, but I don't see a long list of buyers," he said.
The company's shares have also fallen a bit since their July 18 peak, closing up 0.2% in trading Tuesday.
Hibernia is among a handful of regional banking companies that have been pummeled by rising loan losses, higher expenses, and top management shifts only to have their shares soar in recent months as the stocks of larger banking companies - with better earnings track records - falter.
Former stragglers that have joined Hibernia in the warm glow of investor favor are Huntington Bancshares of Columbus, Ohio, up 9% since January, and Honolulu's Pacific Century Financial Corp., up 47% in the same period.
And all three companies are also undergoing restructuring, which has added to their appeal. "They have all been fixing things, making themselves more attractive," Mr. Vandervliet explained
Earlier in the month, Hibernia reported a 10% gain in earnings per share, to 34 cents, beating the consensus of Wall Street analysts by a penny. The company had many of the same problems as other regional banks; its second quarter included a $600 million securitization of indirect auto loans and a $5.5 million writedown in its private equity portfolio. It has continued to charge off or sell off chunks of its loan portfolio, particularly its holdings of large, nationally syndicated credits.
Management reiterated its expectation of earnings per share for this year of $1.36 to $1.39, and said it expects long-term earnings-per-share growth of 8% to 10%.
"All this seems to be a solid indication that Hibernia is on track to post solid profitability in the quarters to come," wrote William J. Black, an analyst at New York investment firm Second Curve Capital, in a research note that appeared on his firm's research site, bankstocks.com.