For what it's worth, Riggs National Corp. has few admirers in Internet chat rooms.

The old Washington company has been a hot topic on virtual bulletin boards of late, with more than one-fourth of the five dozen messages posted on Yahoo since August urging longtime chairman and chief executive officer Joe L. Allbritton to sell. And though Internet rants about public companies are notoriously hyperbolic - if not downright unreliable - in this case, two of the three analysts who follow $5.5 billion-asset Riggs agree.

"My view is that the company needs to be sold in order to remain competitive," said Gary Townsend, an analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey & Co. in Arlington, Va. "Its competition is very substantial. Riggs needs to look at partnering with someone with more wherewithal."

Gerard Cassidy, an analyst at Tucker Anthony Capital Markets in Portland, Maine, said Riggs - which has the top deposit share in the nation's capital - is an attractive franchise, but "its value will only be realized in a sale."

Still, forcing a sale will not be easy. The Allbritton family owns more than 50% of Riggs' stock and has shown no willingness to relinquish control.

Mr. Allbritton, 76, rarely speaks to the press, and could not be reached to comment for this article.

Spokesman Marc Hendrix said Riggs never comments on "anything involving mergers or acquisitions." Mr. Hendrix preferred to focus on the headway Riggs has made since its disastrous third quarter, when it lost $4.3 million.

Riggs' troubles surfaced in August, when company officials discovered evidence of fraud connected with an $11 million loan originated in its London office. That was compounded when a syndicated loan to a theater chain ran into difficulty.

Riggs promptly addressed both matters, charging off the London credit and dispatching its chief credit officer there to reorganize the office. It also sold its portion of the syndicated loan, accepting a $3.9 million loss but salvaging the bulk of its $25 million investment.

Selling the loan was consistent with Riggs' effort to get out of the syndicated loan business entirely. Its syndicated loan portfolio has declined from $273 million at the end of the third quarter in 1999 to less than $50 million.

To fill that gap, Riggs has increased its mortgage lending, originating mortgage loans totaling $18.6 million in the second and third quarters. Mr. Hendrix said Riggs' involvement in mortgage banking was close to zero before April 2000.

Moreover, he said, Riggs' strategy of boosting its noninterest income is working. Riggs, which has vastly expanded its trust, venture capital, and wealth management divisions, had noninterest income of $94.9 million in the first nine months, up 20%.

"We're going to work on growing fee income in the Washington market, where our knowledge of conditions gives us an advantage," Mr. Hendrix said.

Analysts say fourth-quarter results will show that Riggs' damage control returned the company to profitability. Mr. Townsend forecasts earnings of 25 cents a share - versus a loss of 15 cents in the third quarter - and Mr. Cassidy said the improvement will continue in 2001 and that profits will grow 6% to 8%.

"Riggs has moved out of syndicated loans and reduced their lending limits," Mr. Townsend said. "Eventually, that is going to show up as improved credit quality."

But optimistic earnings estimates and a 42% increase in Riggs' stock price since Thanksgiving have failed to shake the growing consensus that Riggs would be better off merging with a bigger bank. Its nine-month earnings were down 40%, to $17.6 million.

"There is no way to describe Riggs as a high-performing financial institution," Mr. Townsend said. "Riggs has to compete against Bank of America, Citibank, and BB&T. Bank of America is having its own troubles, but Citibank could make a strong push" in the Washington market "if it chose to, and BB&T is inexorable. It just continues growing."

The only other analyst who follows Riggs, Derek J. Statkevicus at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. in New York, was unavailable for comment.

Riggs' shares were trading at $14.0625 midday Wednesday.


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