After 13 years with the same debt ratings from Standard & Poor's, NationsBank received a "positive outlook" Thursday, which could affect approximately $20 billion in debt.
"The company has changed over the 13 years from being a North Carolina bank to being the third-largest bank in the country," said Charles Rauch, a bank analyst at S&P. "They have a greatly diversified revenue stream, geographically and productwise."
A ratings outlook can lead to a rating change, usually within three years, Mr. Rauch said. S&P ratings on NationsBank debt now range from A to A-minus.
Mr. Rauch said NationsBank's first-quarter earnings report was a factor in S&P's decision to place the debt on positive outlook. "It appears that the bank is breaking above the 1% return-on-assets barrier," he said.
Several bond analysts said that the positive ratings news for the Charlotte, N.C., bank was long overdue, and that the bond market has disregarded the current ratings in valuing the company's debt.
Indeed, analysts said the spreads on NationsBank's outstanding bonds were unaffected by the news.
"It's a disappointment to a certain extent," said Michael Leit, a bank bond analyst at Prudential Securities. "Clearly, an upgrade would have been warranted."
Andrew Gilligan, a bank bond analyst at Bear Stearns & Co., said that NationsBank has effectively communicated its interest in getting higher yielding assets on its balance sheets.
"That focus is a positive for the rating agencies," Mr. Gilligan said.
Some analysts speculated that Moody's Investors Service would take similar positive steps toward its ratings on NationsBank in the near future as well.
To be sure, not all analysts believe that NationsBank merits higher ratings.
One analyst said that the median return on assets for the banking industry is 1.25%, while NationsBank is just now breaking through the 1% barrier.
Additionally, the median capital level for banks is 8.5%, while NationsBank had a 7.35% Tier 1 capital level at the end of the first quarter.
Allerton G. Smith, a bank bond analyst at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, said that NationsBank doesn't require as much capital because of the range and management of its business lines.
"If you're doing lower-risk businesses and not jumping into things that require more capital, then you don't need to carry excess capital across the balance sheet," Mr. Smith said.
"They have shown that they are a company that is superb at managing interest rate risk, and that they are absolutely disciplined in the process of underwriting loans," said the DLJ analyst.