Zions Bancorp. stock is on the rise again, boosted by an impressive first-quarter earnings report and optimism about the Utah economy.

Despite a downtick in its share price Thursday, analysts predicted Zions would continue its ascent. Earnings, which were announced April 18, jumped 47% to $24 million at the Salt Lake City bank, bettering Wall Street's forecasts.

Since April 15, the stock has jumped to $75.93 a share, from $68, a 12% rise. By comparison, the Standard & Poor's index of major banks fell by about 1% in that time.

Analysts attribute the stock's strength to optimism about the local economy - which is expected to receive an $800 million infusion when the Winter Olympics come to town in six years - and to a cost-cutting program that has improved the bank's efficiency ratio to about 58%.

"There was concern that Zions' growth would slow because of its phenomenal 1995," said Joseph Morford, a bank analyst at Alex. Brown & Sons, who noted that the company's stock had risen 124% last year. "But the first quarter was very strong because of the thriving Utah economy."

With businesses and people flocking to the area, lured by its attractive environment and low business costs, the state's economy already is booming. And this has helped limit credit losses.

Because Zions securitizes many of its loans, credit losses are minimal anyway, said Patricia Ouimet, an associate at John Hancock's regional bank fund, which named Zions as one if its top bank picks.

Some analysts said Zions' stock had been due for a rebound in any event.

With investors worried that the bank would have trouble sustaining the 30% growth in earnings it enjoyed from 1994 to 1995, its shares fell 14% from Dec. 31 to April 15. By contrast, the S&P bank index rose 8% in that time.

On April 16, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. raised the bank to a "buy," helping to end the stock's slide; three days later Mr. Morford upgraded his recommendation.

The Keefe report called Zions the bank of the future, touting its aggressive push into supermarket banking.


Separately, short interest in bank-related stocks dipped in the month ended April 15, while short interest generally was on the rise.

American Banker's monthly tally of short interest (see table on page 18) indicated a 2.2% decline in bank-related short interest among stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange and American Stock Exchange. Short interest among all stocks rose 2.6% on the New York Exchange and 7.4% on the Amex.

Similarly, short interest among bank stocks traded on Nasdaq slipped 2.2%, while overall short interest edged up 0.3%

The trend could indicate optimism about banks. Short interest is the outstanding volume of shares sold short - that is, borrowed and promptly sold. Short sellers often are betting that the stock price will fall so that their short positions can be covered profitably with cheaper shares.

The largest short position in the banking industry was in Banc One Corp. shares, with 18.2 million shares sold short. As reported previously, the short position in Banc One rose rapidly in the month ended March 15 as the result of a strategy the Columbus, Ohio, bank holding company used to speed up its share buyback program.

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