Thanks to stable interest rates, healthy net interest margins, and the cut in Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. premiums that helped prop up returns, earnings in the third quarter will be better than last year for 37 of the top 50 United States banks - 74% - analysts believe.

Many banks, stung by trading losses and interest rate exposure last year, moved to minimize these vulnerablities, aiding their year-to-year improvements.

"People will look at this quarter as being a strong, steady-as-you-go kind of quarter," said Merrill Ross, a bank analyst with Wheat First Butcher Singer Inc. "There are a couple of nice positives: the bond market has not put a lot of pressure on rates, there are good credit trends, and a continued level of consumer buying."

The healthy economy helped lift most banks, but nowhere more so than in California. First Interstate Bancorp.'s third-quarter earnings will be up 87.2% to $2.79 a share, the largest increase for any top 50 bank, according to consensus estimates provided by First Call Corp.

While some of the rise can be attributed to a depressed third quarter last year, a stronger state economy is clearly aiding banks in California, said Scott Edgar, an analyst with SIFE Trust Fund in Walnut Creek, Calif.

At First Interstate, the bank closed a number of acquisitions this year, aiding its performance, said Campbell Chaney of Rodman & Renshaw.

Wells Fargo & Co.'s earnings are expected to rise 21% to $4.67 a share in the third quarter, and BankAmerica's earnings for the quarter are expected to rise 17.8% to $1.59.

California's thrifts also are benefiting from the state economy and from the 11th district's cost of funds index, which lags overall interest rates. While interest rates were falling slightly this year, the COFI index - with which California thrifts peg their rates - was rising.

Coast Federal Savings' earnings in the quarter are expected to rise 183%, Glendale Federal Bank's earnings are expected to rise 83.3% and Westcorp's earnings are expected to rise 40%, according to First Call.

Meridian Bancorp is expected to have the second-largest third-quarter earnings increase for banks at 30.2%. In last year's quarter, the bank took a hit because of a bad year with its securities unit, and because of its shrinking net interest margin, said Elizabeth Summers, an analyst with Ryan, Beck & Co.

Banc One Corp.'s earnings are expected to rise 19.1% to 81 cents per share, as the bank continues to reduce its interest rate sensitivity by moving out of securities and into higher yielding loans, said Fred Cummings, an analyst with McDonald & Co. in Cleveland, Ohio.

But not all banks have successfully reduced interest rate sensitivity. PNC Bank Corp. and Keycorp are both expected to have third-quarter earnings decreases of 20.3% and 6.5% respectively.

PNC is still suffering from the ills of last year's sharp rise in interest rates, and its balance sheet is still behind the curve, said Mr. Edgar.

A number of money centers are expected to suffer third-quarter earnings declines, due to trading losses. Also, as banks wind down their exotic derivatives portfolios and switch to plain-vanilla investments, earnings will be lower, said Frank DeSantis of Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette.

Bankers Trust is expected to have a 22.7% drop in earnings to $1.53 a share, while J.P. Morgan & Co. is expected to have a 4.9% drop to $1.55 per share.

Midlantic Corp.'s third-quarter earnings are expected to drop 27.1% to $1.02, the largest drop for any top 50 bank. However, last year's third- quarter returns were artificially high because of tax benefits, said Ms. Summers.

Some analysts warned that the rosy quarter could be bank's last for some time.

"We would anticipate next quarter and 1996 earnings to come down due to margin erosion caused by a continued decline in net interest margins due to the lack of liquidity in the system, and a flat yield curve," Mr. Cummings said.

With deposit growth flat, banks are increasingly using purchased funds and pricing loans lower, he said. The high loan-to-deposit rates among banks is troubling, he said. Particularly, National City Corp., with a 100% loan-to-deposit ratio, and First Bank System are banks that could face problems down the road, he added.

Generally, there was little discrepancy between analysts' projections. Analysts were not sure, however, what impact Fleet Financial Group's acquisition of Shawmut National Corp would have on its results.

The standard deviation from the $1.04 per share third quarter mean forecast was 10.6%, the largest for any major bank.

The merger "certainly muddies the waters as to what Fleet's earnings will be," Mr. Edgar said.

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