The chief executive of Western Bancorp, which has bought six Southern California banks since 1996, said he does not expect the rapidly growing company to make any acquisitions this year.

CEO Matthew P. Wagner said the $2.6 billion-asset company intends to concentrate on building up its core earnings and consolidating the operations of newly acquired banks.

"We have no deals pending for the first time in our history," Mr. Wagner said. "It will be a cooling-off period."

In fact, it would be difficult for Western-which has amassed more than $2 billion of assets in the past two years-to pull off any deals.

The Newport Beach, Calif., company is crippled as an acquirer by its weak stock price. The shares have tumbled 34% since peaking at $47.875 in April. It is currently trading at 1.9 times book value. The slide in its stock price aborted its $114 million deal for Peninsula Bank of San Diego in November.

High purchase prices are another problem, Mr. Wagner said. Seller expectations of being paid three times book value have not abated, he said.

Western closed two deals before the end of 1998, buying PNB Financial Group, also of Newport Beach, and Bank of Los Angeles, which were collectively valued at $181 million of stock.

Though Western will entertain very "compelling" offers to buy other banks this year, Mr. Wagner said, he expects the company to hit the acquisition trail in earnest again only in 2000.

Erick J. Reim, bank analyst at Piper Jaffray Inc. in Minneapolis, said staying on the sidelines may not be a bad idea. He projected earnings per share growth at Western of only 10% this year. "They need to get their feet underneath them," Mr. Reim said.

Western is expected to announce as early as today that David Rainer will become president and CEO of its wholly owned subsidiary, Santa Monica Bank. The 41-year-old banker, who also would take a seat on Western's board, is to be responsible for integrating newly acquired banks.

Mr. Rainer resigned Jan. 31 as CEO of Pacific Century Bank, the mainland subsidiary of Honolulu-based Pacific Century Financial Corp.

"Western has an ability to put deals together and grow," he said. "That was appealing to me."

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