pressure on larger bank stocks in trading Wednesday.

The Standard & Poor's bank index, which includes 31 of the nation's biggest banks, dropped 1.04%. But the Nasdaq bank in-dex, comprised of 719 financial companies, rose 0.49%. Meanwhile, the broader Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.60%, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 1.02%.

Gainers included Milwaukee-based Firstar Corp., up 56.25 cents, or 2.39%, to $24.125; SouthTrust Corp., of Birmingham, Ala., 25 cents, or 0.73% to $34.375; and Atlanta-based Suntrust Banks Inc. 25 cents, or 0.38% to $65.25.

Pessimism about the overall bank group, however, weighed down many companies in the sector. The Federal Reserve Board's announcement Tuesday that it would crack down on banks with weak underwriting standards, and prospects of a mediocre third quarter are dampening investor enthusiasm, said Lawrence Cohn, a bank analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co. of Livingston, N.J.

"I find we have lowered our estimates in many cases," said Mr. Cohn. "Not that much. A penny here, a penny there, which really does not amount to a hill of beans. But this is the kind of stuff that does not make investors happy."

"Nothing is springing back," said one trader who declined to be named. "Too many value guys have been burned buying on the dips."

In spite of the pessimism, merger rumors -- probably set off by Chase Manhattan Corp.'s plans to buy Hambrecht & Quist and Wells Fargo & Co.'s plans to buy Ragen Mackenzie Group Inc. -- coursed through the trading rooms. Investors ignored most of them.

They took notice, though, of shares of Richmond County Financial Corp., which rose as much as 2% in afternoon trading. The rise was based on speculation that the $2.8 billion-asset Staten Island, New York, bank is about to be acquired by the $4.1 billion-asset Staten Island Bancorp Inc. A deal announcement could come as early as the end of this week, said one source.

At the close of trading shares of Richmond County were up 0.94% to $18.50; shares of Staten Island were unchanged at $18.8125.

Anthony E. Burke, president of Richmond County, declined to comment on the speculation. Frank Besignano, senior vice president of marketing at Staten Island, said, "Our strategy us to be an acquirer. We do have plans to expand, but we would not speak about a specific transaction until it was made public."

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