Union Planters Corp. could fail to meet analysts' fourth-quarter earnings estimates since it has been focused on closing and integrating almost 20 acquisitions, analysts say.

Although bank analysts have aggressively cut their estimates on the Memphis banking company, observers think it still may fall short of Wall Street expectations.

The consensus fourth-quarter earnings estimate for Union Planters is 85 cents per share, according to First Call Corp., Boston.

If Union Planters falls short, it may have little company. Most analysts anticipate that regional banks will at least meet expectations-particularly since they have little exposure to tumultuous foreign markets or precariously situated hedge funds.

But the bank has been dealing with a very full plate of mergers and acquisitions.

In less than a year, Union Planters has acquired or plans to acquire 19 companies, including the $7.6 billion-asset Magna Group Inc., St. Louis. And since December 1997, it has upped its asset size by 40% to more than $30 billion.

Market experts acknowledge that Union Planters' rapid-fire consolidation has added considerable bulk and economies of scale to the company.

But the stream of acquisitions has also dampened earnings, slowed growth, and kept the company's stock price treading water just above its 52-week low of $40.

The bank already has a poor track record as far as meeting quarterly earnings.

"Historically, its earnings have suffered from dilution," said bank analyst William R. Katz of Merrill Lynch & Co., who has an "accumulate" investment rating on the stock. "They have missed earnings estimates as recently as the third quarter."

Since then, Union Planters' shares have fallen 13.1% as investors have become apprehensive about the company missing earnings estimates. On Wednesday, they rose 12.5 cents to $43.625.

Ratings are also being cut.

Shortly after third-quarter earnings came out, bank analyst Thomas H. Hanley of Warburg Dillon Read and Joseph Roberto of Keefe Bruyette & Woods Inc. cut their ratings to "hold" and "market perform" respectively.

Last week, Jacqueline Reeves of Salomon Brothers Smith Barney reiterated her "neutral" rating.

The consensus earnings-per-share estimate for Union Planters is 85 cents for the fourth quarter, according to First Call.

Analysts' expectations vary widely around the consensus figure.

Among 12 followers of the company, per-share estimates range from 76 cents to 94 cents.

That is "one of the widest ranges that I've seen in a company," said Charles L. Hill, First Call director of research.

"The wide range alone means someone is going to be disappointed," said Mr. Katz of Merrill Lynch & Co., who said he expects 82 cents for the fourth quarter. "There is no question that this is going to be a noisy quarter. Skepticism is extremely high."

Still, there is optimism about Union Planters' future.

"The good news about the company is that the majority of the integration will be completed by yearend, and the company can spend most of 1999 on building revenues and achieving cost savings," said Mr. Katz. "Earnings momentum will improve. And that is much more critical than what will happen in the fourth quarter."

Bank analyst Joseph A. Stieven of Stifel Nicolaus & Co., St. Louis, said he agrees and expects investors to return to the stock after a messy fourth quarter.

"Union Planters has a strong franchise, and the stock is at levels which make it pretty compelling," he said.

"If the stock comes down any more it will be susceptible to an upgrade."

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the Standard & Poor's bank index fell 0.16%, and the Dow Jones industrial average lost 0.37%. The Nasdaq Bank index fell 0.32% and the S&P 500 slipped 0.07%.

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