BankAmerica Corp. is planning an about-face in the merchant credit card business, buying back shares of BA Merchant Services issued in a partial public spinoff less than two years ago.
On the heels of the BankAmerica merger with NationsBank Corp., BankAmerica announced its intention last week to acquire the merchant processor's publicly owned class A shares for $15.50 each, or $252.1 million.
BankAmerica, which owns all class B shares and controls 66.6% of the merchant company's equity and 95.2% of the voting rights, said little about its strategic intentions.
The bank seems to be reaffirming a desire to control and profit from a transaction processing business that many bankers view as increasingly important. Spokesman Dennis Wyss said only that it is "a reassessment of business strategy."
The buyback is targeted for the first quarter pending review by a board committee, plus regulatory and shareholder approvals. It would be at the same per-share price as the initial public offering in December 1996. Salomon Smith Barney analyst Richard K. Weingarten said the net effect would be "a nice, interest-free loan."
"Buying back a piece they do not own, at a cheap valuation, is attractive," Mr. Weingarten said.
News of the plan Friday drove shares of the stock up $2.3125, to $15.9575 in midafternoon.
Since the spinoff, the disparity in price/earnings multiples between processing companies and banks has narrowed considerably. The $15.50 share price is 15 times next year's projected earnings. Mr. Weingarten sees that as at least $5 undervalued.
"I do not think the offer is high enough," he said.
The fourth-largest merchant processor, BA Merchant Services handled $10 billion of transactions in the second quarter, 25% more than in the 1997 period. Its 170 million transactions were up 35%.
The stock was recently downgraded from "recommend" list to "market perform" by Goldman, Sachs & Co. BA Merchant Services is viewed as susceptible to the crises in Asia, which contributes 7% of revenue.
Second-quarter revenues rose 16%, to $45.2 million, and net income 1%, to $9.2 million. The third-quarter report is due Nov. 3.