After a breathtaking acquisition spree, Regions Financial Corp. is pausing to take stock-and buy back some shares.
The $35 billion-asset company announced its first stock buyback program in many years when it said late Monday that it would repurchase 2.9 million shares, or about 1.4% of its common stock.
Like most everything involving Regions, the buyback is related to acquisitions. The shares to be repurchased were issued to finance the purchases of Arkansas Banking Co., Jonesboro, and St. James Bancorp., Luther, La.
Regions is a veritable poster child for acquisitions. The Birmingham, Ala.-based company has bought 30 banks and thrifts since 1995, according to Sheshunoff Information Services. It closed six deals in the third quarter, and five more are pending. The nonstop dealing has almost tripled the company's asset size in three years.
But now it's time to stop and absorb all the new banks and tend to customers and shareholders, chief executive Carl E. Jones Jr. said.
"We've done so many acquisitions, I think we'll be withholding from our recent pattern for a while," he said. "We've got some deals pending and some more systems conversion work to do on those that have closed, and all that should take us until the middle of next year."
Such words will gladden the hearts of many shareholders. Though Regions stock has rallied over the past four weeks with the rest of the market, its shares have been laggards since the company took on its biggest deal to date early this year.
On Feb. 9, Regions won a bidding war and agreed to pay $2.7 billion for First Commercial Corp. of Little Rock, a $7.3 billion-asset company whose chief attribute, some analysts said, was that it was the biggest bank in Arkansas, a slow-growth state.
With no overlap between the companies, Regions officials emphasized, there would be few layoffs and little customer disruption. Investors looked at the same information and questioned where the cost savings would come.
Since the deal was announced, Regions' shares have underperformed the Standard & Poor's major regional bank index, falling 6.5% while the index has been essentially flat.
The deal closed July 31, and the reviews have been mixed.
Third-quarter earnings came in as expected, but Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Michael Mayo cut his 1999 earnings estimate for the company to $2.60 from $2.65 because of slowing revenues. He nonetheless rates it "buy."
Lisa Welch, a bank analyst at John Hancock Funds Inc., which owns 1.93 million shares of Regions, said the company seems to be wringing out cost savings quickly and revenues seem to be increasing at First Commercial branches.
Christopher Kelley, a bank analyst at Morgan Keegan & Co., Memphis, said Regions has done a good job keeping top First Commercial managers, many of whom have experience competing against such big players as the former Boatmen's Bancshares and NationsBank Corp. "It's true Arkansas is not the fastest-growing state, but the business there is Regions' to lose," he said.
If the bank stumbles, analysts said, it will quickly become a prime takeover candidate. Regions is one of four big banks headquartered along 20th Street in downtown Birmingham, and Wall Street has been waiting for years for one of them to sell.
Regions shares rose 50 cents Tuesday, to $37.625, on an otherwise lackluster day. Citigroup shares fell $2, to $44.125, as post-merger management turmoil continued to hurt the stock. The Dow Jones industrial average closed unchanged, at 8706.15, and the S&P bank index rose 0.59%.