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Merrill Upgrades Nationwide Financial Rating

Merrill Lynch upgraded Nationwide Financial (NFS) to near term strong buy from buy.

Analyst Edward Spehar says normalized earnings per share were about 13% above his 2002 forecast; therefore, he says shares would be trading at less than 10.5 times normal EPS, which seems to be unwarranted -- given the outlook for long-term growth and returns.

Spehar notes the company's operating return on equity was 13% in the first quarter, a strong performance given there have been two consecutive years of negative returns for the stock market. He cut his $3.55 2002 EPS estimate to $3.50, and trimmed the $3.95 2003 estimate to $3.90 to reflect weakness in the market. Spehar also raised his $53 target to $54 and keeps his long term strong buy rating.

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