“Too big to fail” has become “too big to buy much of anything” for the nation’s largest banks since the financial crisis.

Even several steps down from the multi-trillion-dollar-asset tier, where the push for breakups has become intense, banks haven’t been swallowing up smaller institutions like they used to. (The following graphic shows data on deals by assets sold and number of announcements, segmented by the asset size of the buyer. Interactive controls are described in the captions. Text continues below.)

Conventional deal announcements by buyers with $10 billion to $100 billion of assets rebounded to 13 in 2012, but remained well below the range of 20 to 48 that prevailed from 1999 through 2007. (As used here, “conventional deals” encompass buyouts of whole institutions and exclude deals for branches and failed banks.)

Meanwhile, 2012 deal announcements by buyers with less than $1 billion of assets, at 108, and by buyers with $1 billion to $2 billion of assets, at 30, were in the ranges that prevailed for each size class before the recession.

Some large buyers like M&T (MTB) have been active. The Northeastern power would increase its asset size by about half, to about $125 billion with its deal for Hudson City Bancorp (HCBK), and it acquired about $10 billion of assets in its acquisition of Wilmington Trust in 2011.

Capital One Financial (COF) transformed itself with purchases of ING Group’s U.S. online banking business and a $30 billion HSBC credit card portfolio last year, also increasing its size by about half, to $300 billion. Securing approval for those deals was arduous, however, and taken as a signal that regulators have raised high hurdles for large acquirers, where additional bulk could magnify systemic risks.

Moreover, Capital One’s performance after the mergers has underwhelmed investors, with a deal in February to sell a $7 billion chunk of the card loans it bought widely interpreted as a retreat.

Indeed, large deals have always been lumpy, with blockbuster announcements suddenly ending dry spells that can last several quarters.

(No year comes close to rivaling 2008, when deals for Wachovia, Countrywide, National City and Sovereign in the heat of the crisis accounted for 90% of the total $1.4 trillion of assets at banks that agreed to sell.)

Buyers with more than $10 billion of assets were relatively inactive in 2012 in the market for targets with less than $2 billion of assets, however.

Such deals may not move the dial much for big banks, but they were a staple for banks with $10 billion to $100 billion of assets for most of the last decade.

For now, that has left it up to smaller banks to pair off and lead the revival in deal announcements.

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