With its $1.56 billion bid for Michigan National Corp., National Australia Bank Ltd. moved to join the ranks of foreign banks with a strong, full-service foothold in U.S. retail and commercial markets.

The deal, announced over the weekend, is in keeping with an acquisition strategy that National Australia has carried out in Britain and Ireland, where it owns a network of medium-size regional banks.

The price for $8.7 billion-asset Michigan National, at $110 a share, was a somewhat modest 1.82 times book value, reflecting years of earnings troubles. National Australia "made the acquisition based on future prospects and not history," said general manager Christopher Williams.

The $93 billion-asset Australian bank is buying into the Midwest through Michigan National's 191-branch network at a time when its own earnings are slackening and its expenditures mounting, analysts said.

"We continue to rate NAB highly, although earnings momentum has clearly diminished and there has been or will be near-term earnings disappointment," said Andrew Turner of CS First Boston. Australian banks are affected by "growing pressure on core banking revenues" as companies go directly to capital markets for funding, competition from deregulation increases, and loan margins decline.

"We've been looking for the last several years to have a banking presence in the United States," said Mr. Williams. "In terms of our global transnational position, we believed it was important to participate in a large market in the United States."

Since the 1980s, Melbourne-based National Australia has acquired Clydesdale Bank PLC, Northern Bank Ltd., and Yorkshire Bank PLC in the United Kingdom, National Irish Bank, and Bank of New Zealand.

In a statement Monday, National Australia chairman W.R.M. Irvine said the offer for Michigan National was a "logical extension" of the group's strategy. Mr. Irvine added that "the immediate effect on the group's earnings per share is expected to be negligible."

National Australia is the first Australian bank to make a major retail acquisition in the United States. The only other Australian bank that attempted to expand its U.S. presence significantly was Westpac Banking Corp. of Sydney. By 1992, Westpac began to cut back its U.S. wholesale banking activities after running into heavy losses and large problem real estate loans at home.

Mr. Irvine said National Australia "can add substantial value to Michigan National" by boosting the Farmington Hills-based bank's share of the consumer market, deepening its relationships with existing business customers, and improving productivity and customer service through staff development and training.

Despite its uneven earnings record, Mr. Williams said Michigan National "has worked hard to refocus its core business in Michigan."

The Australian bank currently has some $4.4 billion of assets in the United States, where it runs a wholesale banking operation from a branch in New York. Almost all the assets are booked through the bank's offshore office in the Cayman Islands. The bank closed a Los Angeles agency last June.

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