ABN Amro Holding of the Netherlands would like to make a big acquisition in the Midwest. But for the moment, nobody is selling.

ABN Amro has given its LaSalle Bank Group in Chicago the green light to seek out deals that could fulfill the company's expansionary ambitions.

There is even a short list of targets, including Comerica Inc. of Detroit, Mercantile Bancorp. of St. Louis, Marshall & Ilsley Corp. of Milwaukee, and Old Kent Financial Corp. of Grand Rapids, Mich.

All these companies declined to comment on the possibility of an offer or takeover.

Rarely will a potential acquirer send such open signals about companies in its sights. Though the information from ABN Amro and LaSalle is coming out unofficially and on an "off the record" basis, it is not being denied at official levels.

Jules Prast, a spokesman for ABN Amro in Amsterdam, said the Dutch banking company has long been and will continue to be opportunistic.

Despite Banc One Corp.'s recent acquisition of First Chicago NBD Corp., consolidating the new Bank One's headquarters in Chicago, "our franchise is not under threat," Mr. Prast said. But he acknowledged that ABN Amro does not want to fall too far behind its U.S. competitors in size.

ABN Amro would have liked to buy Firstar Corp. of Milwaukee, but that company "totally ignored us," said a LaSalle official. Firstar agreed this year to sell to Star Banc Corp. of Cincinnati. Acquisition-minded LaSalle people now do not rule out trying to buy Star at some point.

LaSalle also considered buying First of America Bank Corp. of Kalamazoo, Mich., which was bought by Cleveland's National City Corp. in March.

"I don't think it is any secret we have long had an appetite to expand," said a LaSalle official. Mr. Prast acknowledged as much, saying, "We make no secret that we have this proactive approach to acquisitions."

But recent comments by executives in Amsterdam suggest the company would like to expand sooner rather than later. One motivating factor is declining bank stock prices.

As recently as June 3, at an international banking conference in Vienna, ABN Amro managing board chairman Jan Kalff cited lofty U.S. prices as a deterrent. Last week ABN Amro chief financial officer Wilco ten Berg told Dow Jones News Service that the company might look to get bigger in the U.S. Midwest at a time when prices are down.

Still, the banks reportedly on LaSalle's short list do not appear eager to sell. Even if they were, it is not clear they would be interested in taking the stock of a foreign corporation.

ABN Amro could also offer cash, but then the seller's shareholders would be faced with capital gains taxes.

A cash deal might not be a bad option in a volatile market, said Michael Moran, an analyst at Roney Capital Markets in Detroit. "Today, as opposed to six months ago, a cash deal at least has a shot," he said.

On the other hand, he said, ABN Amro could be in bidding competition with several other big U.S. banks. But ABN officials said they have deep pockets.

ABN Amro North America, the holding company that includes LaSalle National Bank, has $145 billion of assets. The Dutch parent has $397 billion.

LaSalle made its last major acquisition in 1997, buying $17 billion- asset Standard Federal Bancorp of Troy, Mich. It has also done a number of smaller bank deals over the years.

Many observers see St. Paul Bancorp of Chicago as a possible seller. It is a $5.3 billion-asset thrift company under pressure from investors to improve profits. However, LaSalle sources say they don't like St. Paul's branch network or loan-deposit mix. "We haven't looked at St. Paul for two to three years," one bank official said.

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