With shares of FleetBoston Financial Corp. down 12.2% since May 29, many analysts are calling the stock one of the best deals among financials.
"It is one of the cheapest stocks in the bank group I cover," said Steven Wharton, a buy-side analyst with Loomis, Sayles & Co. in Boston. At an American Banker roundtable discussion on Tuesday Mr. Wharton said many investors are scared about the developments in Argentina, where FleetBoston has exposure in retail banking and government debt - but that these concerns are overblown. "They could be on the hook for some sovereign debt, but overall their international line of business is growing," he said, adding that any possible losses from South America could easily be absorbed.
Fleet issued its 10Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission Tuesday, stating that its financial results "have not been significantly impacted by this situation [in Argentina] to date." The company even said that dips in its domestic loan portfolio were partly offset by loan growth in Latin America.
Denis Laplante of Fox-Pitt, Kelton Inc. said that the bad news surrounding Fleet is already out. Investors who are becoming wary about the continuity in consumer spending might want to shift to Fleet stock, he said. "If you think that consumer lending is getting a little worse and chances for commercial loan growth are getting better, Fleet is the perfect situation," he said.
Fleet's earnings have been dragged down for some time by integration costs from its 1999 merger with BankBoston.
In its filing, the company said that net interest income decreased 6% in the last quarter, "primarily due to the impact of the divestiture of $9 billion of loans and $13 billion of low-cost deposits throughout 2000 in connection with the BankBoston merger."
Fleet said that Robertson Stephens, its brokerage unit, had a net loss of $14 million in the second quarter, compared to a profit of $25 million last year. Brokerage fees and commissions declined 31% in the second quarter and 40% in the first six months of 2001, compared to the year-earlier period. Underwriting revenue declined 69% in the second quarter and 80% in the first six months.
"In defense of Fleet, I would say that they made a conscious decision in 1999-2000 to leave Robertson Stephens alone," said Mr. Laplante. But this year, he said, Fleet is putting more resources in Robertson Stephens to enable the brokers to expand product lines and research.
Not everyone believes that Fleet is out of the doghouse. Michael L. Mayo of Prudential Securities, who has kept a "sell" on Fleet ever since he resumed coverage in March, said that he is still concerned that revenues will lag well into next year.
On Wednesday, Fleet was down 1.01%, while the overall market for financials was mixed. The American Banker index of 225 banks was up 0.05%, while the index of top 50 banks fell 0.23%. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 0.73%.