The big are getting bigger here.

An April research report by a Georgia investment banking group found that the four largest banks in Atlanta hold nearly 70% of the deposits in the metropolitan market.

The increasing concentration has been fueled by consolidation in the banking industry, said the researchers, in the financial institutions group of Sterne, Agee & Leach Inc.

The four largest banks in the metro area increased their share of deposits from about 52% in 1991 to 69% last year.

"Atlanta used to be one of the more fragmented banking markets, but you've had a lot of consolidation," said Kathryn H. Bissette, senior vice president of Sterne Agee.

NationsBank Corp.'s Atlanta bank leads the pack with 25.8% of total deposits; Wachovia Corp.'s bank controls 15.9%; SunTrust Banks Inc., 14.7%; and First Union Corp., 12.5%, according to Federal Reserve data.

Statewide, the four largest institutions saw their combined market share grow from 41% in 1991 to 50% last year.

The increasing market presence of a handful of big banks illustrates a trend replicated across the country as consolidation shrinks the number of institutions.

"Economies of scale are becoming increasingly important in managing expenses, creating capital and attracting capital in amounts large enough to meet the needs for new technology, new delivery channels, and new products," said Jerry Highsmith, Atlanta region president for First Union.

As in Georgia, the major markets in Florida of Tampa/St. Petersburg and Clearwater have seen the combined market share of the top four institutions grow from 46% in 1991 to 67% last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. For the entire state of Florida, the percentage of deposits in the hands of the four largest institutions grew from 42% to 59% in the same time period.

Likewise, in Virginia, the market share for the four largest banks grew from 45% to 53%. In the Washington, D.C., area, market share of the largest institutions grew from 37% in 1991 to 54% five years later, according to Federal Reserve data.

Ms. Bissette said that the concentration of deposits in the hands of a few translates to enhanced profitability potential.

"There are studies that show that there is a strong correlation between market share and profitability," she said. "It helps the overall situation in Atlanta for pricing for everyone competing in the market."

Over the last few years, some consumer groups have expressed concern that industry consolidation would leave consumers with little choice. But bankers and regulators insist that isn't the case-at least not yet.

"We have lots of options in Georgia," said Steven D. Bridges, deputy commissioner of the Banking and Finance Department of Georgia. "I would seriously doubt that there is a market where consumers don't have at least one community bank office somewhere where it is convenient for them. The consumer choice is definitely still there."

Indeed, as big banks augment their market share, a flurry of community banks are springing up across the state of Georgia, Mr. Bridges said.

After only six new state-chartered banks opened from 1994 to 1996, in 1997 alone, two new banks have received their charters, while five more have been approved and are now opening. Six other banks are being formed, according to Mr. Bridges.

There are many reasons for the consolidiation spurt, bankers said.

The acquisitions of troubled thrifts is one factor. Another is that Georgia's banking laws encouraged the proliferation of start-up community banks in the 1980s, many of which were later sold to larger institutions. Thirdly, the bankers said, the big institutions have been spending more money on marketing and working hard to attract customers.

"The larger banks have been aggressive in their customer acquisition programs," said Thomas D. Hills, Atlanta city president for Wachovia.

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