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Stephens upgrades Sandy Spring to 'overweight'

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* Stephens' Austin Nicholas upgraded Sandy Spring Bancorp Inc., as he forecasts a 1.45% return on assets in 2019 and a sub-50% efficiency run rate, even without the benefit of rate hikes.

Those better-than-peer profitability and efficiency figures take into account the recently closed WashingtonFirst Bankshares Inc. acquisition. System conversion is expected to occur over the first weekend in March, and Olney, Md.-based Sandy Spring has been focused on client retention, "proactively [reaching] out to clients before the acquisition." Attrition so far seems to have been minimal, according to the analyst, and integration risk seems to have been priced in.

The rating is now "overweight," instead of "equal weight." The price target is $45.

Notable reiterations

* Raymond James' Michael Rose reiterated his "outperform" rating of CenterState Bank Corp., following management's meetings with investors.

The company is expected to remain acquisitive, with a potential expansion into Atlanta unlikely to be hindered by ongoing integrations. The analyst noted Winter Haven, Fla.-based CenterState already has significant mortgage and correspondent operations in the city and has spotted six to eight opportunities in and around the market. That said, CenterState has also said it hopes to keep buying in Florida. Potential bank targets would have $1 billion to $3 billion in assets, although a $500 million bank with the right footprint or culture would be considered.

The price target is $31. Rose expects the stock to outperform, in part from "continued solid organic loan growth [and] opportunities for accretive M&A."

* Hovde Group's Joseph Fenech kept Evans Bancorp Inc.'s "outperform" rating.

The company's 6-cent dividend hike "better aligns [Evans'] dividend yield with the Northeast peer median of 2.4%," the analyst wrote. New Vice Chairman Oliver Sommer is known to Fenech from the former's First Niagara Financial Group Inc. days and his addition to the board in 2017 had been considered "a significant positive development."

The price target is $49. The stock is a Hovde Top Idea and the Hamburg, N.Y.-based company remains "the only true pure play on the revitalized Buffalo [metropolitan statistical area]," according to Fenech.