Billionaire investor Warren Buffett will hold at least 2% of Minneapolis-based First Bank System Inc. by early next year, a $130 million stake at today's stock price.
If the pattern of Mr. Buffett's previous investments in banks is repeated, disclosure of his stake in First Bank System could presage a major increase in the company's market valuation.
This time, however, Mr. Buffett has not invested directly in the stock in question. His First Bank System shares will come as a result of stakes he has taken in Firstier Financial Inc., which First Bank agreed to buy this summer, and in Geico Corp., the casualty and property insurer.
Geico filed a Form 13F last month revealing that it had acquired 1.9 million shares of First Bank System. Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Mr. Buffett's investment company, plans to buy the 51% of Geico it currently does not own by January.
Together with the 858,178 shares he will receive for his Firstier stake, Mr. Buffett's position in First Bank System should exceed 2% by January.
While this would make him only the sixth-largest shareholder in the bank, he commonly builds his equity from such small positions, and he is rumored to be buying more of the bank's shares.
"First Bank System meets the criteria of a Warren Buffett kind of investment," said David Berry, director of research at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "It is very focused on cutting costs in its day- to-day activity. Its major share repurchase program announced earlier this year is another factor that would attract Mr. Buffett."
Mr. Buffett has significant holdings in Wells Fargo & Co., PNC Bank Corp, SunTrust Banks Inc., First Interstate Bancorp, and First Empire State.
"What he sees in banks are managements that are taking traditional businesses and making something different out of them," said Thomas Brown, an analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. "They are going beyond traditional banking into financial services businesses, and making productive use of shareholder equity."
Some market sources said Mr. Buffett's preference for companies that are focused on shareholder value has prompted him to reduce his stake in PNC Bank Corp., which has been criticized for its acquisition of Midlantic Corp.
If Mr. Buffett is unloading his PNC shares, Mr. Brown said, it would make sense, because PNC had to cease a major share repurchase in order to make the Midlantic deal.
Mr. Buffett currently owns 5.3% of Firstier Financial and was consulted when the company agreed to be bought by First Bank System.
That agreement will exchange 0.8829 First Bank share for each Firstier share .
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In other news, George Salem of Gerard Klauer Mattison predicted that NationsBank Corp. would make acquisitions in the next few years totaling $100 billion in assets.
"This company has a clear strategy of seeking growth of assets and profits via acquisitions," he said. "It would not surprise us if someday NationsBank becomes the largest bank in term of assets of all U.S. banking companies."
NationsBank shares fell 37.5 cents to $67.25.
The Midwest and Middle-Atlantic are more likely to be areas NationsBank makes acquisitions, rather than the West and New England, he said.
The favorite target could be Mellon Bank Corp., because of its diversified portfolio, proximity to current NationsBank franchises, and presence in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets.
Mr. Salem also upgraded his 1995 third-quarter earnings-per-share estimate from $1.80 to $1.85, full-year 1995 EPS estimate to $7.05 from $7, and full-year 1996 EPS estimate to $8.10 from $8.
He also reiterated his "buy" rating on the North Carolina bank.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve's monetary policymakers decided Tuesday to leave short-term interest rates unchanged. The central bank's position had been anticipated on Wall Street, and the financial markets showed little reaction.
The Fed's Open Market Committee did not issue a statement about its stance. It was the second successive month that the Fed, apparently satisfied with the health of the economy, has elected to pass on any monetary policy changes.