First Union Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. are the early spring favorites of Wall Street analysts, according to data compiled for American Banker by First Call Corp.

As of March 15, the consensus 12-month stock target price for First Union was $68.25 per share. That translates to a projected growth rate of 23.8% from the $52 closing price on the same day, the highest such appreciation rate among the 50 largest banks.

Notably, this snapshot was taken just a few days before First Union's stock received a boost from the company's announcement of a major cost- cutting program. On Monday the stock closed at 53.9375, down 56.25 cents.

The First Union consensus target price is little changed from a month earlier-up just 0.7%-suggesting that Wall Street's enthusiasm is under control. Indeed, though most analysts welcomed the company's cost-cutting plan last week, there was no rush to raise earnings estimates or target prices.

Actually, the current 12-month growth rate carried by First Union is down sharply from a month ago, because the stock has recovered value from the thumping it took after the Charlotte, N.C., company said in late January it would not meet earlier earnings growth estimates.

On Friday, First Union said it would cut 5,850 employees and take a $380 million restructuring charge that will cause it to miss analysts' first- quarter consensus estimate of 92 cents per share. Better results are expected in the second half of the year.

"I was a little aggravated at how they went about lowering expectations, but the stock is cheap and they have a good business plan," said Lawrence W. Cohn, research director at Ryan, Beck & Co. in Livingston, N.J. He rates the stock a "strong buy."

In a survey on Feb. 15, First Union carried a slightly lower 12-month price target of $67.75 per share, but its battered stock price had pushed the projected growth rate from that target price to 33.5%

First Union is not alone in this situation. The recent recovery of the bank stock market - as fears of higher interest rates have receded - has caused many valuation growth rate targets to slip accordingly.

Last month U.S. Bancorp. was the banking industry favorite, with a projected 12-month valuation growth rate of 44.6% while First Union ranked fourth.

This month, the Minneapolis banking company, whose stock has performed well, slipped to fifth place, with a still quite respectable 16.3% projected 12-month growth rate.

In second place currently is Wells Fargo. Its consensus 12-month price target of $49.25 on March 15-which is up 5.35% from mid February-implies a projected stock price growth rate of 21.6% over the period.

The analysts' consensus target for Wells Fargo has risen steadily in recent months as Wall Street consolidates a favorable opinion of the new company formed by the merger of Wells and Norwest Corp.

Coverage by a minimum of four analysts is required for inclusion in the target price survey, which is limited to the top 50 banks in stock market capitalization. In the case of First Union, the consensus was derived from eight analysts' target prices, while six were used for Wells Fargo.

In Monday's market, the Dow Jones industrial average again fell shy of the 10,000 mark, ending the session at 9890.51. The Standard & Poor's bank index was virtually unchanged, with a fractional loss of 0.1%.

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