Investors unhappy with NationsBank's earnings

January 18, 1995|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

Shares of NationsBank Corp., the nation's third-biggest bank, tumbled yesterday as fourth-quarter earnings failed to meet Wall Street's expectations. The company blamed lower interest rates.

The Charlotte-based banking company that took over Baltimore-based MNC Financial Inc. and MNC's Maryland National Bank unit in 1993 said it earned $405 million in the last three months of 1994, up from $373 million in 1993.

But the results worked out to only $1.46 a share, six cents short of the consensus estimate of analysts who follow NationsBank. So traders took the shortfall out on NationsBank's stock, which fell $1.875 to $46.625 a share. Other big regional banks were narrowly lower.

"The estimates for the fourth quarter were higher than we delivered," NationsBank investor relations director Rusty Page said. But he defended the company's performance for the full year, in which the bank earned $1.7 billion. "We had a 22 percent increase in earnings per share for our stockholders. That ain't all VTC bad."

Banks have made historic profits during the rebound from the 1991 recession because of an unusually large spread between the short-term interest rates they pay to borrow money, usually from depositors, and the longer-term interest rates they can ask customers to pay for loans.

That gap shrank in 1994 as the Federal Reserve pushed short-term interest rates insistently higher. Long rates also rose, but not as much, because of the bond market's decline. The result was that NationsBank's interest income was flat in the fourth quarter after rising sharply early in the year.

"What you have is that NationsBank's earnings momentum is slowing, as is the banking industry's," A. G. Edwards & Sons Inc. analyst Michael Starr said.

Mr. Starr said that NationsBank has been adding new loans faster than its competitors in a bid to make up for narrower interest margins with more volume, but that it hasn't been able to add loans fast enough to replace all of its lost profitability.

Rising rates also led the company to shift its securities portfolios during the third quarter in a way that sharply reduced its revenue from securities trading but protects it against further interest rate increases, Mr. Page said. The short-term negative effects of that shift were still being felt late in the year, Mr. Starr said.

But analysts said they did not believe the earnings release marks a significant downturn for NationsBank, and, Mr. Page said, the company believes its earnings per share will climb at least 12 percent in 1995. He predicted that most gains will come later in the year, when NationsBank expects the economy to improve.

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