Bank sellers have earned better prices so far this year.

The 31 banks that disclosed their sales price in 2012 fetched a median price equal to 116% of their tangible book, or equity excluding goodwill and intangibles. That is up from a median price of 94% of tangible book in the fourth quarter and 108% a year earlier, according to data from SNL Financial.

The data also shows that three of the four priciest bank deals announced since January 2010 happened in the first quarter of 2012.

Cadence Bancorp in March agreed to pay 240% tangible book for Encore Bancshares (EBTX). That was the priciest deal since Comerica (CMA) agreed to pay 229% tangible book for Sterling Bancshares in January 2011.

The No. 3 and No. 4 most expensive deals were Union BanCal's agreement to pay 224% tangible book in March for Pacific Capital (PCBC), and Prosperity Bancshares' (PB) agreement to pay 206% tangible book for American State Financial in February.

The price-to-tangible book ratio is a popular pricing metric because it shows whether a bank is sold for a premium or discount to its equity. Healthy banks were fetching prices of 300% to 400% or higher before the economy collapsed, so current bank prices remain depressed by historical standards.

Reports vary on whether the number of deals has picked up this year.

SNL reports that there were 51 open-bank sales announced in the first quarter, or 31% more than the 39 transactions announced a year earlier. It counted 7 deals in April as of Monday.

Others offer a lower first-quarter count. Forty-three takeovers of U.S. banks and thrifts had been announced as of Monday, according to Bloomberg data. There were 43 deals during the same time last year.

The combined value of the 51 deals cited by SNL Financial was $3.03 billion. That was 28% higher than a year earlier.

Executives at six acquisitive banks from coast to coast told investors and analysts last week that they expect 2012 to be another slow year for mergers and acquisitions. Buyers and sellers still cannot agree on price.

Despite that pessimism, the numbers indicate that the deal market is thawing, especially among community banks, experts said this week.

"When things are dead is exactly when things get alive," Christopher Marinac, an analyst with FIG Partners, said earlier this week. "We had a couple more transactions."

Large banks are wary of buying at the moment but may be more inclined as the year progresses, said Jeff Davis, an analyst with Guggenheim Securities.

"'They don't like the numbers the would-be sellers want," he said.

Bank M&A slowed in 2011, with 176 deals worth $17.02 billion compared with 215 deals worth $12.15 billion in 2010, SNL said.

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