Barnett Banks has agreed to buy BancPlus Financial Corp., a major Texas mortgage bank, for $162 million in cash.

The deal, announced Thursday, marks Barnett's third acquisition of a home loan business in less than a year. It would swell Barnett's mortgage servicing portfolio by about 80%, to $32 billion.

Like many commercial banks, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Barnett has targeted home loans as a way to bolster fee income and forge closer ties with consumers. Last year, Barnett agreed to buy Loan America Financial Corp., a Florida-based mortgage bank, and Equicredit Corp., a major home equity lender.

In pushing into home loans, Barnett has faced some formidable regulatory obstacles. Specifically, the company has been under close scrutiny by the Justice Department for possible racial bias in mortgage lending.

Despite the probe, banking regulators decided to approve the earlier deals.

Observers said they thought the BancPlus deal would also win regulatory approval, even though the Justice Department has yet to close its case with Barnett.

"Recent precedent might indicate that they are in the clear," said Warren W. Traiger, a New York-based banking lawyer. "It is just not automatic."

BancPlus, which originates mortgages through 63 offices in 23 states, is owned by an investor group that includes billionaires Sid and Lee Bass. The group, organized by BancPlus management, purchased the company from the government's Resolution Trust Corp. for an estimated $100 million.

Last year it originated some $1.5 billion of mortgages, mainly through direct dealings with consumers. Loan America, by contrast, concentrates on wholesale originations.

Barnett, which has assets of $41 billion, said the latest acquisition would make it the nation's 15th-largest mortgage originator and 17th- largest servicer.

"This acquisition will enhance fee income, increase productivity, and diversify Barnett geographically," said Charles E. Rice, Barnett's chairman.

The deal is the latest in long series of mortgage banking acquisitions by commercial banks. Last year, BankAmerica Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., and Chemical Banking Corp. each made major purchases in the field.

Not all banks are joining the trend, however. Earlier this week, for example, AmSouth Bancorp. said it was putting its mortgage banking operations up for sale because it had been unable to attain the necessary economies of scale.

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