U.S. Bancorp, one of the strongest earners recently in the banking industry, could fall short of Wall Street expectations next year, one analyst has cautioned.

The Minneapolis banking company may not achieve the widely expected 15% growth of earnings per share in 2000 unless it makes a "meaningful acquisition," Frederick A. Cummings of McDonald Investments Inc. in Cleveland said in a recent note to clients.

But Mr. Cummings added that U.S. Bancorp's relatively low stock price multiple, 14.7 times its expected 1999 earnings, would seem to rule out a sizable acquisition anytime soon.

On Wednesday, U.S. Bancorp shares rose 43.75 cents, to $33.50.

The quality of U.S. Bancorp's earnings may also be called into question, as loan chargeoffs for the company accelerate and loan loss reserves become inadequate for the increase, Mr. Cummings said.

Chargeoffs are expected to increase because of the company's shift from residential first mortgage loans toward high-loan-to-value second mortgage loans, which offer more spread at a higher risk, the analyst said.

Mr. Cummings currently has a "hold" investment rating on the company's shares, and told clients he would only be a buyer if its price was $30 or less.

Mr. Cummings' cautious view of U.S. Bancorp is unusual; The company has been a favorite among bank analysts. The consensus Wall Street investment rating for the $76.4 billion-asset bank is bullish, according to First Call Corp. of Boston.

However, investors have been notably less enthusiastic since U.S. Bancorp and many other bank stocks plummeted during last year's tumultuous third quarter.

U.S. Bancorp shares are trading 24.4% below their six-month high of $43.75, set last Sept. 8. By comparison, the Standard & Poor's bank index is down 13.3% during the same period.

U.S. Bancorp missed its earnings estimates for the third quarter. During the fourth quarter, the company dissuaded analysts from higher earnings targets, according to analyst James M. Schutz of ABN Amro, who has a "hold" on the company.

"My feeling is that the stock would have trouble outperforming its peers after the two downward revisions," he said. "It takes a while to earn back the respect of the investor."

Among the difficulties the company has encountered is slowing loan growth in the Northwest markets and the loss of some government payment processing business to other banks, Mr. Schutz said.

Still, most analysts argue that the negative view of the stock is overdone.

On Tuesday, Nancy A. Bush of Ryan Beck & Co., Livingston, N.J., asserted in a note to clients that because U.S. Bancorp "hit a speed bump," Wall Street "flogs the stock unmercifully and refuses to believe that anything can go right again."

The company has reasonable revenue, tight reins on costs and vigilant capital management, Ms. Bush said. She elevated her investment rating on the stock to "strong buy" from "hold."

"Investors need to turn their attention to bank stocks with histories of quality and little risk of quality blips," said Ms. Bush, who expects the company's stock price multiple to expand to 17 to 18 times earnings.

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