Reflecting Wall Street's enthusiasm for banks' stocks, the total market capitalization of the nation's 100 largest banking companies surged 14.7% during the third quarter to a record $386.6 billion.

The banks' best quarterly gain in market value in nearly four years undermines the perception that their stocks invariably perform poorly in the second half.

Some analysts and investors had feared a rerun of the drop the banks endured in the second half of last year as interest rates rose. Historical references were sometimes cited to reinforce the notion.

Nevertheless, the growth in market capitalization (see table on page 20) - and a strong rally in bank shares in trading Wednesday - casts doubt on the negative view of the sector.

"The people who had those theories are now reaching for excuses," said John J. Mason, an analyst in Atlanta with Interstate/ Johnson Lane.

"I am not a childish optimist, but the plain vanilla of it is that there have been few earnings disappointments and the consolidation of the industry continues," he said.

"I definitely don't buy that thesis," agreed George M. Salem of Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co. "There is very little that is seasonal about what banks do and little seasonality in their stock performance.

"Yes, they had a great first half, and, yes, they are vulnerable to profit taking," he said. "But I don't see any great risks at the moment, and we still have merger mania."

In fact, six of the industry's top 10 mergers of all time were unveiled this year - four of them in the third quarter. The excitement they spawned has helped raised the market value of banks generally.

The July-September period was the third straight quarter in which capitalization for the 100 largest banks increased sharply, following declines in both second-half quarters last year.

Through Sept. 30, the largest banks had piled up nearly $120 billion in additional market value this year. By contrast, the total market capital of the top 100 banks was only $101.4 billion on Dec. 31, 1990, the recent low point in the industry's fortunes.

Citicorp widened its lead as the bank with the highest market capitalization, adding an impressive $5.3 billion of market value in the third quarter. Its value on Sept. 30 was $29.3 billion.

Chemical Banking Corp., which said in August it would combine with New York rival Chase Manhattan Corp. to form the nation's largest bank, enjoyed a 30.2% rise in third-quarter market value - to $15.3 billion.

The biggest gainer was First National Bancorp, Gainesville, Ga., whose market value rose 58.8% in the quarter to $565.8 million, primarily on takeover speculation. The company vaulted into the top rank of banks in market value, moving to the 98th spot from 115th on June 30.

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