Shares of bellwether institutions like Fifth Third Bancorp could be ensnared by worries about an economic slowdown.
Well-regarded Fifth Third enjoys one of the highest price-to-earnings ratios among bank stocks. But that paradoxically also heightens risk, which prompted a downgrade to "maintain" from "accumulate" Wednesday by Timothy Willi of A.G. Edwards & Sons.
Mr. Willi also downgraded to "maintain" from "buy" Commerce Bancshares.
So far, the shares continue doing well. Fifth Third, based in Cincinnati, ended the day at $81, up $1.125. Commerce Bancshares was also up, 25 cents, to $68.50.
But the stocks of many quality banks are at the high end of their historical range at a time when the economy may be slowing, Mr. Willi said. "Right now everyone is delivering," but uncertainty is increasing.
Among his banking concerns, Mr. Willi said commercial net chargeoffs are moving upward. "They are not at levels that scare us," but more reserves may be needed, he said.
Meanwhile, ripples from the Asian financial crisis continue to be felt, with Unionbancal Corp.'s shares the latest to enter the spotlight.
Unionbancal, parent of Union Bank of California, fell $1.4375, to $100.0625 after a downgrade to "market perform" from "attractive" by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. This year's price run-up has "put a lid on the shares' upside potential" for the time being, said analyst Thomas F. Theurkauf.
But shares of the San Francisco institution could fetch $130 to $140 if their primary owner, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd., needs to sell them to raise capital for shoring up operations in Japan, Mr. Theurkauf said.
Mr. Willi of A.G. Edwards also raised Huntington Bancshares to "maintain" from "reduce," saying share prices are now more in line with peers. The banking company's shares dropped 43.75 cents, to $37.125.
Shares of Sovereign Bancorp., Wyomissing, Pa., fell 87.5 cents, to $19.875 after a downgrade to "neutral" from "outperform" by Charles Wittmann at Wheat First Butcher Singer.
Still, bank stocks as a group outperformed broader markets on Wednesday. The Standard & Poor's bank index rose 0.49%, and the Dow Jones industrial average was off by 0.24%. The Nasdaq bank index was up 0.32% and the S&P 500 fell 0.26%.
Both large and small banking companies continue repurchasing shares. Bank of New York Co. was up $2.0625, to $57.6875 after announcing plans to repurchase up to 15 million of its common shares in 1998. And First Western Bancorp shares fell 25 cents, to $27.75 after the announced buyback of 333,000 shares.
BB&T Corp. rose 18.75 cents, to $67.4375 after George Bicher of BT Alex. Brown dropped shares to "market perform" from a "buy." The Winston-Salem, N.C., banking company agreed Wednesday to buy Franklin Bancorp of Washington for $165 million.
And MBNA fell $1.625, to $27.625 after BT Alex. Brown reduced its rating to "buy" from "strong buy."