NEW YORK, NOV. 23 -- E.F. Hutton Group Inc. renewed talks with Shearson Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. about a possible merger after announcing today that it was reviewing other unidentified takeover proposals.
The disclosures appeared to indicate that a merger was inevitable for scandal-plagued Hutton, which broke off informal takeover discussions with Shearson last November.
A merger of Shearson and Hutton would vault the combination past Salomon Brothers Inc. as the nation's biggest investment firm. Ranked by capital, Shearson and Hutton are the nation's second- and 10th-largest securities firms, respectively, according to the Securities Industry Association.
Hutton announced today that it had received indications of interest from unidentified parties in a takeover or substantial investment in Hutton and had instructed its financial advisers to hold discussions with prospective investors or buyers.
Hutton declined further comment, but Shearson later disclosed that Hutton had reopened takeover talks. That seemed to indicate that Hutton might have received overtures from unwanted suitors and had become resigned to losing its independence.
Shearson, which is about 60 percent owned by American Express Co., is seen as coveting Hutton's worldwide retail network, which would immediately add about 6,500 account executives to Shearson's own 5,700 brokers, while enabling it to get more use from its computerized securities processing operation, which was expanded last year.
Analysts said a merger would enable Hutton to strengthen its relatively weak presence in capital markets activities, while bolstering its erratic financial performance.
It also could remove some of the tarnish the 84-year-old firm has suffered since pleading guilty in 1985 to 2,000 counts of federal mail and wire fraud stemming from a check-overdraft operation.
Hutton has been involved in several other embarrassing incidents, including having to establish a special $130 million reserve last year to cover customer losses on municipal bonds the firm had marketed and traded improperly.
The firm also reportedly came under Securities and Exchange Commission scrutiny following the disclosure last November that it held informal merger talks with Shearson.
Hutton had indicated it knew of no reason for heavy activity in its stock during preceding weeks, although the firm reportedly had spoken with Shearson during that time.
Hutton and Shearson held discussions over a possible merger at prices reportedly around $50 a share, but the talks collapsed when the two could not agree on terms.
Hutton later denied a formal offer had been made.
Shortly afterward, the firm named an executive of Sumitomo Life Insurance Co., a major Japanese concern, to its board, raising the possibility that Hutton might seek a foreign investor or buyer.
Analysts estimated that in the wake of last month's stock market plunge, Hutton now could command a buyout price in the low $30s, making any deal worth more than $1 billion.
Hutton vehemently has denied unconfirmed market rumors that it suffered severe financial problems during the crash, but has not detailed the impact of the stock plunge on the firm.