In what has become an annual ritual, Central Fidelity Banks Inc. has strongly reasserted its intent to remain independent.

But analysts who follow the company say the Richmond, Va.-based bank may face a challenge trying to maintain this stance with the advent of national interstate banking.

Lewis N. Miller Jr., in his first address as Central Fidelity's chairman and CEO, reaffirmed the company's "Virginia-only" strategy, which aims to keep it a Virginia-focused and Virginia-owned bank.

"Virginia remains one of the best banking markets in the country, one in which we have consistently outpaced competitors in loan and deposit growth," Mr. Miller told shareholders last week. "We have and will continue to prosper here."

Mr. Miller was promoted from president and co-chief executive officer to his current positions last September, following the death of his predecessor, Carroll L. Saine.

Mr. Saine had made similar remarks reaffirming the Virginia-only strategy last May at the company's 1994 shareholders' meeting.

"I think it's in reaction to some of the continued speculation that surrounds it and other banks in the Virginia market," said analyst David West of Davenport & Co. in Richmond.

The three remaining large independent Virginia banks - Central Fidelity, Crestar Financial Corp., and Signet Banking Corp. - rank among the most attractive acquisition candidates in the country. Central Fidelity, during Mr. Saine's 18-year reign, was the most vocal of the three in asserting its desire to remain independent.

When Mr. Saine died of lung cancer last August, speculation arose that the company might soften its stance. But Mr. Miller, so far, has been just as adamant about the go-it-alone approach as was Mr. Saine.

"They are sincere in their efforts to stay independent," said analyst Vernon Plack of Richmond-based Scott & Stringfellow Inc. "But how long they can do that is probably anyone's guess.

"I would suspect that somewhere along the line, the odds would stack against them. But I don't know if that's two years from now or four years from now," Mr. Plack added. "The bottom line is going to be what numbers they produce."

Central Fidelity's earnings momentum did show signs of faltering last year, when net income of $85 million fell 17% from 1993's $103 million, breaking the company's 19-year streak of consecutive annual earnings gains. First-quarter earnings of $26 million were down 12% from the year-earlier period.

The major problem has been securities losses related to a restructuring of the bank's investment portfolio in the face of rising interest rates. Analysts expect continuing fallout from this restructuring to produce unfavorable period-to-period comparisons until the fourth quarter.

"Their earnings momentum is going to be relatively nonexistent until the end of the year," Mr. West said. "I think 1995 will be a year when they show modest improvements throughout the year."

"Given the trends, it would seem their ability to remain independent is certainly becoming more challenging," Mr. Plack said.

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