Some bank stocks may be encountering turbulence from a new direction: cyberspace.
As Internet use rises steadily, more computer-savvy investors are logging onto electronic message boards to exchange ideas, share information-and catch up on the latest scuttlebutt.
Visitors to these discussion sites, also known as "threads" in cyberslang, are typically retail investors, but curious shareholders at all levels can join in.
Chat rooms for bank stocks are extensive and ever-growing, notably on Yahoo! Finance (www.messages.yahoo.com/). Discussions are myriad, ranging from a bank stock's price-to-earnings ratio, to company morale, to the company's next merger.
Especially mergers and rumors of mergers.
Wall Street's banking industry analysts do not think Internet gossip alone is yet capable of generating big swings in stock prices. However, they certainly do not dismiss the phenomenon-and they warn of the attached perils for investors.
"Something said on a street corner may not get around, but it will get around on the Internet," said analyst Eric E. Rothmann of Stephens Inc., Little Rock, Ark. "If enough ideas or rumors are exchanged, people may act on them no matter how wrong the information may be."
Industry analyst Michael L. Mayo of Credit Suisse First Boston said he agrees that message boards and chat rooms for discussing bank stocks and stocks in general are gaining more credibility among retail investors.
As more people use the Internet, "it has more potential to impact less liquid (company) names, especially as these forums gain greater visibility," said Mr. Mayo. While he said shares of smaller banks and thrifts could be affected, he said he doubts larger bank stocks will be moved.
"From our perspective, bank stocks move mostly due to the largest institutional firms as opposed to the retail investors expressing their opinions in a forum that any Tom, Dick, or Harry could get into," Mr. Mayo said.
Indeed, like unrestricted trading floors, message boards for banks have become hotbeds of rumor activity. The hearsay tends to fly fastest on Fridays as investors wonder and speculate whether a merger or acquisition is likely to occur by Monday.
Not surprisingly, electronic chat sites about banks considered either potential takeout targets or aggressive acquirers tend to germinate more messages than those about other companies.
These hot companies include Mellon Bank Inc., Bank of New York Co., Chase Manhattan Corp., Merrill Lynch & Co., and Fleet Financial Group Inc.
Many, perhaps most posted messages about mergers are either wrong or charitably seen as wishful thinking. But on-line investors can sometimes be ahead of others in knowing that something is up.
For instance, one on-line investor, noting Star Banc Corp.'s surging stock price, posted this message at 6:34 p.m. on Monday, June 29: "Star Bank is in negotiations to being bought out!"
The next morning, the Cincinnati banking company was more accurately reported in the business media to be near an agreement to buy Firstar Corp., Milwaukee. The deal was announced a day later.
Still, most market professionals remain distinctly wary of the trend.
"If an investor is going to buy a stock on what they hear in a chat room," said bank analyst Frank J. Barkocy of Josephthal & Co., "they deserve the consequences."