Bank One Corp. will surprise skeptics who think the merger with First Chicago NBD Corp. hurts earnings, at least one banking analyst has asserted.

At less than $50 a share, Bank One "is a tremendous buying opportunity," said Bradley VanderPloeg of Everen Securities in Chicago. The shares closed Monday at $48.8125, off $1.

At 12.5 times the analyst's 1999 earnings estimate, the stock is trading at a discount to other bank stocks, which generally sell at around 15 times earnings.

The merger, which closed Oct. 2, created one of the nation's largest banking companies. But results since then have drawn some criticism on Wall Street.

Mr. VanderPloeg said he expects Bank One to tally earnings gains of 18% this year and 17% in 2000. "The real driver," he said, "is making the First Chicago acquisition work." And he anticipates it will be successful.

"This is one of the few bank deals of this size that will work very well," he said. "You have a clear winner in terms of who is running the company, and on the retail side you have similar philosophies about how to run the franchise."

On the other hand, commercial lending is an area that warrants greater attention, Mr. VanderPloeg said. "Bank One historically has not attacked the commercial lending market very aggressively, while it's always been a core business line for First Chicago," he said.

The analyst also likes Comerica Inc., calling the $37 billion-asset Detroit banking company "an overlooked gem."

Comerica, active in Michigan, Texas, California, and Florida, "continues to do well in terms of profitability and, unlike some of its peers, is having no problem generating loan growth," he said. Shares of Comerica fell 12.5 cents, to $60.875.

For the day, the Standard & Poor's bank index lost 1.01%, and the Dow Jones industrial average was off 0.14%. The Nasdaq bank index dipped 0.24%, and the S&P 500 added 0.35%.

Bank stocks continued to underperform relative to other industry groups.

"The market is trying to find a good base level here, and the banks don't reflect it," one bank stock trader said.

"I'm optimistic there will be somewhat of a recovery," Mr. VanderPloeg said. "But investors will be selective; only the top performers will provide better returns than the market."

Shares of Reliance Bancorp were up 37.5 cents, to $30 after an upgrade to "outperform" from "perform" by analyst Mark Fitzgibbon of Sandler O'Neill & Partners. Shares of the $2.5 billion asset thrift are inexpensive relative to its peers and could reach $35 within 12 months, Mr. Fitzgibbon said.

In raising 1999 earnings-per-share estimates to $2.25, from $2.15, Mr. Fitzgibbon cited stock repurchases and a stronger net interest margin at the Garden City, N.Y., thrift.

Shares of First Charter Corp. were dipped 25 cents, to $18.375, after an upgrade to long-term "buy" by analyst John Moore at Interstate Johnson Lane.

The company's efficiency ratio improved to 51.5% in the fourth quarter, compared to 56.4% in the fourth quarter of last year, Mr. Moore said. He also cited improved asset quality, with nonaccruals decreasing to 0.40% of gross loans, 9 basis points lower than year-ago levels. Chargeoffs were 15 basis points of average loans for 1998, 1 basis point lower than 1997, Mr. Moore noted.

Meanwhile, trading was halted by Nasdaq in shares of Wilshire Financial Services Corp. Nasdaq said trading will remain suspended until Wilshire provides additional information about the company's recent performance.

The request is the latest for Wilshire, which is in the midst of trying to gain approval for a prepackaged reorganization. The reorganization calls for approvals from holders of $184 million of its 13% notes due 2004, and 13% Series B notes due 2004.

Wilshire has said the reorganization will not affect day-to-day operations.

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