Rumors of a blockbuster merger deal involving Fleet Financial Group have been so persistent this summer that some bank analysts have begun studying the matter despite their own doubts.
Most of the speculation centers on a possible merger of equals with Bank of New York Co. Both banks declined to comment.
Such a combination would create a $100 billion-asset banking company with the dominant retail franchise in the Northeast, huge mortgage and credit card businesses and trust revenues in excess of $300 million annually.
"This company could really be awesome," said Nancy A. Bush of Brown Brothers, Hamman & Co. said.
Skeptical of a deal soon, she nevertheless "intrigued by the level of speculation."
"While this all may come to naught, we think it's prudent to look at the possibilities," she said last week.
Stock price of the two banks have gone in opposite directions this summer.
Fleet shares have slipped lower since the end of May while Bank of New York shares have gained ground despite a generally weak market for banks recently.
On Friday, both banks had mixed results. Fleet ended at $37.375, up $1.375, while Bank of New York closed at $31.75, down 12.5 cents.
The logic for a merger of Fleet, headquartered in Providence, R.I., with Bank of New York would be cost savings, which she said could be dramatic. But social issues could be a stumbling block. With its slightly larger market capitalization, Bank of New York would have the option of installing its management. And that, Ms. Bush noted, "might produce a little heartburn" for Fleet chairman and chief executive officer Terrence Murray, "who is not known for playing a great second fiddle."
But she said Mr. Murray, who is 54, might agree to succeed J. Carter Bacot, Bank of New York's' chairman, in two or three years.
Mr. Murray could "use that time productively to learn to run a more focused company than has sometimes been the case in the past," she said.
A more immediate problem, however, is that any transaction soon could cancel out the benefits to Fleet's shareholders from the company's own recently announced cost-cutting effort and corporate restructuring program.
"I'd be very much surprised if that deal happened, but there has been so much smoke around you to have to wonder about a fire." said Lawrence W. Cohn of PaineWebber Inc.
"Every Friday I hear from someone that there's going to be an announcement on Monday," he said. "And now I'm also hearing it will happen the day after Labor Day."
Mr. Cohn stressed on Friday that "the reasons for this not happening are compelling."
"If I'm a Norstar shareholder. I'm only just getting back to even at this point," he said. in a reference to the former Norstar Bancorp, Albany, N.Y.
Fleet acquired Norstar on Jan. 1, 1988.
Inside a year however. bank stocks generally had begun falling into a two-year slump as a result of problem loans.
Shares of banks in New England were among the worst hurt as the region suffered through a prolonged real estate recession.
In addition, Fleet has not been regarded by analysts as among the most efficient banking companies. It is trying to rectify that with its restructuring program, called Fleet Focus.
"Fleet Focus is still in the early stages," the PaineWebber analyst said. "We only started to see some effects in the second quarter this year."
As a result, he said, a low-premium merger-of-equals transaction would likely not be well received by many Fleet shareholders at this point.
But Mr. Cohn said he had also "pushed a pencil around" to gauge the impact of a possible deal with Bank of New York, which is viewed as among the most efficiently run major banks m the country.
"Assuming that Bank of New York could bring its own level of efficiency to a deal. the combined company would be capable of making dramatically more money," he said.
"It's a potentially compelling story," said Frank J. Barkocy of Advest Inc. "It would be a good produce mix and a nice geographic fit down the Eastern seaboard."
"This is not a new rumor, but it doesn't seem to go away," he said. "We are overdue for another big deal in banking."
In other market news last week, tiny Abington Savings Bank, a $404 million thrift in Plymouth County, south of Boston, set two 52-week highs on speculation of possible takeover.
Traders said the bank could sell for as much as $26 a share or close to two times book value. No possible acquirers have emerged in the speculation.