After a dramatic announcement in January that it would not meet analyst expectations, First Union Corp. is still struggling to restore its credibility on Wall Street.
"A lot of analysts and investors are taking a wait-and-see approach," said Katrina Blecher of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. "At this point, the company has to prove it can deliver."
First Union's shares plunged 8.7% in value on Jan. 27 after the company announced that an accounting change would cut the growth rate of its earnings. Its shares have lagged other bank stocks ever since.
While no one is counting First Union out at this point, the subpar performance of its stock has raised questions about the company's viability as an acquirer. Some even see First Union, which was built through acquisitions, as a potential takeover target itself, though they note that only a handful of buyers could afford it.
However, Jeep Bryant, a spokesman for the Charlotte, N.C., banking company, dismissed any talk of a takeover. "The market isn't reflecting the full value of the franchise we've built," he said.
The January announcement made it clear that revenues "weren't popping to the bottom line as fast as the Street wanted them to," said Joan Goodman, an analyst at Pershing/DLJ.
To compound First Union's difficulties, the company led an $850 million unsecured credit facility to United Companies Financial, which filed for bankruptcy early this month. First Union's exposure is a $90 million loan to the subprime lender.
To cover the United Companies loan, First Union has factored in a small hit to the roughly $4-per-share guidance it has supplied to Wall Street. First Union has also ratcheted up this year's expected chargeoff ratio by 50 basis points to account for the loss, said Thomas H. Hanley, banking analyst with Warburg Dillon Read.
"The bank will begin to see more revenues because they've rolled out a national advertising campaign," Ms. Goodman said. "They remain a very attractive bank. In the states where they do business they are considered a prime banking franchise."
"The organization has tremendous earnings power," Ms. Blecher said. "The Street just wants a higher level of comfort."
Analysts say that First Union has time to get its stock price up, and that no takeover is imminent. Most of the banks that might target First Union because of its low stock price "are still busy consolidating their own recent purchases," Ms. Goodman at Pershing said.
Still, Wall Street analysts say BankAmerica Corp., Bank One Corp., Chase Manhattan Group, and Citigroup are all large enough to swallow First Union.
"Where their stock is today" a merger is "a possibility," said John Moore of Interstate/Johnson Lane.
"Wouldn't it be an irony?" if such an acquisitive bank were to be bought out, said George Bicher of BT Alex. Brown.
One bank that is not in the midst of a merger is Chase Manhattan. Though no analysts were predicting such a matchup, a Chase executive said at yearend that the company is open to the possibility of reentering the merger fray.
At the very least, First Union, which has taken few respites from dealmaking over the years, would have to come up with more of its own shares for any merger it might contemplate.
The stock closed at $54.6875 Wednesday, up $1.4375. The shares remain below their $57.0625 price on the day before First Union disclosed it would fall short of analysts' expectations.
The activity occurred as the Standard & Poor's bank index was adding 1.67% and the Dow Jones industrial average was up 0,82%. The Nasdaq bank index rose 0.75% and the S&P 500 0.55%.
Meanwhile, shares of Household International Inc. jumped $4 on Wednesday, closing at $45.8125, after news that the company would buy back $2 billion in stock.