A venerable Chicago bank will be a prime beneficiary if NationsBank Corp. mishandles its purchase of Barnett Banks Inc., an analyst said.

Northern Trust Corp. has been building its trust and private banking services in Florida just in time to capture the high-net-worth customers who may flee Barnett Banks in the wake of the acquisition, said Joel Gomberg of William Blair & Co., Chicago.

Northern Trust's Florida operation "is the envy of private banking competitors," Mr. Gomberg said.

The unit, which includes asset management, fiduciary, tax, and estate planning services, earns 2.5% on assets and 31% on equity, making it one of the nation's five most profitable banks with assets just under $1 billion, he said.

The performance contributed to Mr. Gomberg's decision to raise the shares of Northern Trust to a long-term "buy" from a "hold."

The stock closed unchanged, at $74.75, after the recommendation, and on word that Northern Trust would exit the futures brokerage business by transferring the unit to a New York futures and options clearing company.

Mr. Gomberg said Northern Trust's management is creating one of the nation's premier private banking programs by "following the money."

The company, with 62 offices in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas, has another 12 states with high per-capita income on its radar screen.

Over the next decade Northern Trust should boost its network to more than 100 offices, over an area containing 40% of the nation's wealthiest people, Mr. Gomberg said.

Meanwhile economic and productivity news indicating low inflation helped raise the Dow, but bank stocks lagged on some profit taking from Tuesday's rally. The Standard & Poor's bank index was off 0.17%, and the Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.78%. The Nasdaq bank index was up 0.77% and the S&P 500 0.58%.

Commerce Bancorp of Cherry Hill, N.J., is also poised to gain from merger fallout-in this case, any possible troubles from First Union Corp.'s purchase of CoreStates Financial, said David C. Stumpf, banking analyst at A.G. Edwards & Sons.

The banking company is especially well-entrenched in the Philadelphia market and could improve its deposit share and net interest margin if the merger does not go smoothly, Mr. Stumpf said.

Commerce rose 6.25 cents, to $55.125, after Mr. Stumpf reiterated an "accumulate" recommendation and raised 1998 estimates by 2 cents, to $2.55, and 1999 estimates by 10 cents, to $2.95.

He said shares could hit $60 within 12 months as Commerce opens branches and recruits key people in the Philadelphia area.

Lending is likely to grow "as some customers prefer to deal with a more locally based bank," Mr. Stumpf said.

In other developments, trading was halted for First Empire State Corp. while a buyer was sought for a large block. The 10,500 shares were finally moved at a discount to First Empire's $499.875 opening price, helping to pull shares down $11.625 for the day.

Union Planters Corp. was off 56.25 cents, to $61.625, after disclosing plans to acquire Ambanc Corp. in the third quarter for $211 million. Ambanc fell 75 cents, to $29.

Shares of Capital One Financial Corp. continued their climb, rising $5.9375, to $84.8125, after an upgrade by Merrill Lynch & Co. The specialty finance company's stock has surged in recent weeks on positive words from other investment firms.

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