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On Feb 21, Zacks Investment Research upgraded Center Bancorp Inc. (CNBC - Snapshot Report) to a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy).

Why the Upgrade?

Center Bancorp has been witnessing rising earnings estimates owing to strong fourth quarter 2012 results. Moreover, this regional bank delivered positive earnings surprises in 3 of the last 4 quarters with an average beat of 5.5%.    

Center Bancorp reported fourth-quarter results on Jan 25. Earnings per share came in at 27 cents, surpassing the year-ago earnings of 20 cents by 35.0%. However, the earnings were a penny below the Zacks Consensus Estimate. Results were primarily aided by a solid net interest income growth and a fall in other expenses, partially offset by a decline in fee income.

Net interest income jumped 12.4% year over year to $11.4 million. Yet, other income declined 45.6% to $1.0 million. Total other expenses marginally fell 0.5% year over year to $6.2 million.

Credit quality progressively improved at Center Bancorp. Provision for loan losses plummeted 66.7% from the prior-year quarter to $0.1 million. Similarly, as of Dec 31, 2012, nonperforming assets were 0.31% of total loans, down 28 basis points from the prior-year quarter.

The Zacks Consensus Estimate for 2013 increased 7.1% to $1.20 per share as the sole estimate was revised higher over the last 60 days. For 2014, the single estimate was revised up over the same time frame, lifting the Zacks Consensus Estimate by 15.8% to $1.32 per share.

Other Stocks to Consider

Besides Center Bancorp, other stock in the same sector like First Financial Holdings Inc. , Riverview Bancorp Inc. (RVSB) and Meta Financial Group, Inc. (CASH - Snapshot Report) carry a Zacks Rank #1 and are worth considering.

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