Wall Street analysts expect BankAmerica Corp. to be more ambitious about returning value to shareholders under new chief executive David Coulter.

J.P. Morgan Securities analyst Catherine Murray initiated coverage of BankAmerica Thursday with a "buy" rating, citing the possibility of a $2 billion share repurchase program during the next two years.

The stock closed up 87.5 cents, at $63.625 a share, after rising by as much as $1.125 early in the trading day.

"We expect BankAmerica to increase its focus on capital management and repurchase sizable amounts of common stock in 1996 and 1997, given its stated policy of returning excess capital to shareholders," Ms. Murray said.

The bank's financial performance should be driven by these repurchases and by lower operating costs, she said, as well as by "restructuring its retail delivery system and lower regulatory costs."

Ms. Murray expects the company to earn $7.25 per share in 1996. The consensus estimate among analysts who cover the stock is $7.15, according to First Call Corp. The bank company earned $6.45 per share in 1995.

In addition to buying back the $2 billion worth of common stock, which at today's close would be more than 31 million shares, the bank is expected by Ms. Murray to buy back $2 billion of preferred stock callable over the next two years. The bank repurchased $894 million of stock in 1995.

She also suggested the bank could securitize its $37 billion residential mortgage portfolio to free up more capital for share repurchases.

Raphael Soifer of Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. agreed BankAmerica is likely to launch ambitious capital management efforts under Mr. Coulter.

"One difference between the present management and the former is, this management is more likely to give back excess capital to shareholders rather than use it for acquisitions," he said.

"Under (former CEO Richard) Rosenberg, the bank used more of its capital for acquisitions than you would expect with Coulter," he said. Mr. Coulter succeeded Mr. Rosenberg on Jan. 1.

However, Mr. Soifer rates the bank only a "hold" because of what he described as problematic "core earnings." He argued the company would have to take a higher loan-loss provision than it now does. As a result, his estimate of reported earnings for 1996 is $7.10 per share, but his core earnings estimate is only $6.20.

Because of the lower earnings estimate, the price-earnings multiple is higher than in most models, he said.

Ms. Murray said BankAmerica's P/E for 1996 would be 8.4, below the 10.1 average for superregionals. Mr. Soifer countered that comparing BankAmerica to a superregional is misleading because it is more like a money-center and the latter typically have lower P/Es. Ms. Murray's 12-month price target is $74 per share.

In other news, a number of analysts issued 1997 earnings estimates for Wells Fargo & Co., fresh from its victory in the battle to acquire First Interstate Bancorp.

Merrill Lynch & Co. issued a 1997 profit estimate of $28.05 per share. Salomon Brothers Inc. issued an estimate of $25.35 per share. And Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co. predicted $27 per share for the San Francisco-based bank.

All these estimates are cash earnings estimates - reported estimates would be lower because of the goodwill charges Wells must take in connection with the merger.

The analysts' disagreements stem in part from their estimates of how large Wells' loan-loss provision will be - it took no provision in the last quarter - and what First Interstate's revenue growth will be.

Wells declined $3.25 to $226.25 a share, and First Interstate declined $1.75 to $147.50. First Bank System Inc., a day after bowing out of the Interstate battle, fell 87.5 cents to $50.875.

Firstar Corp. rose 50 cents a share, to $40.50, on news of a major cost- cutting program. New Iberia Corp. rose $3.25 to $26.25, or 14%, after announcing late Wednesday it was close to being acquired by Whitney Holding Corp. in a $54 million deal. The Standard & Poor's index of bank stocks rose 0.23%, while the S&P 500 index fell 0.47%.

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