Wall Street offered mixed reviews on Merrill Lynch & Co. Wednesday, a day after it posted weaker-than-expected second-quarter earnings and said the third quarter was shaping up to be no better.
Two analysts took very different views of the company's market valuation. Guy Moszkowski of Salomon Smith Barney improved his investment recommendation to "buy," from "neutral," but Amy S. Butte, an analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc., cut hers to "neutral," from "attractive." Both based their changed recommendations on the current stock price. Mr. Moszkowski said he considers the stock attractive in the wake of recent declines, despite weak markets and potentially slower earnings in the third quarter; Ms. Butte said she thinks the stock is "fairly valued," particularly with respect to the lower earnings outlook.
Investors seemed to follow Ms. Butte's lead on Wednesday, and the stock ended down 0.76%.
Meanwhile, shares of SunTrust Banks Inc. seemed to lose some of the momentum they had built since last week. Gains made since SunTrust reaffirmed Monday that its current bid for Wachovia Corp. would not be improved on seemed to indicate that speculation over whether it would increase its offer had subsided.
After an initial jump on Monday, "the differential (excluding the one-time, 48-cent-per-share dividend payment from First Union to Wachovia at closing) widened to 5%, versus 1.8% at Friday's close," Marni Pont O'Doherty of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. wrote in a research note.
SunTrust shares extended their gains Tuesday, rallying more than 2% and further beefing up the company's bid in the battle over Wachovia. Still, it remains far from clear that the gap between the SunTrust and First Union bids would be sufficient to lead investors to accept the former's hostile offer.
"Given the wider differential, SunTrust's bid would appear to be more attractive than it was," Ms. O'Doherty said, but she added that she continues to believe First Union will ultimately prevail.
Harold Schroeder of Dallas-based Carlson Capital LP said that the premium SunTrust is offering would have to widen considerably to win over shareholders because most have made up their minds for First Union. The closer looms Wachovia's Aug. 3 shareholder vote, the less likely it is that votes will swing in favor of SunTrust, he said.
Some analysts saw SunTrust's stock rebound as evidence that investors who found the hostile bid unsettling were growing less concerned that the company would prevail.
"The race is far from over," said Katrina Blecher, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP. She said, however, that the strong performance of SunTrust's stock, compared with First Union's, might just show relief among SunTrust investors, who have reacted reservedly to the management's offer for Wachovia.
On Wednesday, SunTrust was up 0.63%.