Shares of North Fork Bancorp and Whitney Holding Corp. got lifts Thursday, but bank stocks overall failed to re-ignite after Wednesday's selloff.
North Fork was up 56.25 cents, to $24.50, after Robert B. Albertson of Goldman, Sachs & Co. initiated coverage, adding the stock to the firm's "recommended" list.
The recommended list identifies companies from all industries seen as having the most potential to outperform the market. North Fork earned its ranking by demonstrating prowess as a consolidator and skill at developing a selling system.
"Through an aggressive sales culture and careful cost cutting, North Fork has turned an agglomeration of banks into a highly profitable institution," Mr. Albertson said.
With $10 billion of assets, North Fork is one of the smallest banking companies Goldman follows. But the Melville, N.Y., company has substantial upside potential, with shares positioned to rise by almost 40% over the next 12 months, Mr. Albertson said.
The support for another gainer, Whitney Holding Corp., New Orleans, was more subtle but still quiet effective.
A large institutional shareholder bumped the thinly traded stock up 43.25 cents, to $55.25, with the relatively modest purchase of 8,000 shares, traders said.
The $4.3 billion asset banking company operates in the Southeast, where consolidation is in full swing.
But the company is not viewed as a takeover target that would attract investors looking to profit on the premium of an offer.
"We don't see management as very willing sellers," said R. Harold Schroeder, banking analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
Shares of First Union Corp. were down 25 cents, to $56.
The stock is seen on the verge of a selloff by some investors.
First Union on Thursday registered for sale 1.2 million shares issued to pay for its April acquisition of Boweles Hollowell Conner & Co. Shares allotted to directors and officers of the Charlotte, N.C., investment banking firm can now be sold on the open market.
In general, the market was tepid on Thursday, ending flat after a rocky run the day before.
The Standard & Poor's bank index gained 0.65% and the Dow Jones industrial average was up 0.38%.
The Nasdaq bank index added 0.39% and the S&P 500 rose 0.49%.
Traders say a sense of reluctance is starting to permeate equity markets.
"There's been a buyers' strike," said Michael Zucker, head of block trading at CIBC Oppenheimer. "A lot of investors are nervous."
The unease stems from uncertainty about the quality of earnings that companies will report for the second quarter, Mr. Zucker said.
Also, investors are intimidated by the prospect of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates at its next meeting, he said.
How will bank stocks fare if the downturn develops into a bear market? Not too badly if investors take a hard look at operations, industry analysts insist.
"It shouldn't be prolonged," Mr. Schroeder said. "Banks are strong and continuing to improve," with consolidation, better use of technology, and "smarter management" driving the efficiencies.