The British insurer Prudential PLC’s deal to buy American General Corp. has set off speculation about which U.S. insurer will be bought next and whether the buyer will be domestic or foreign.

European bank insurance giants such as France’s Axa and the Dutch insurer Aegon NV, as well as multiline insurers such as Germany’s Allianz, have all been building their U.S. business through acquisition for the past several years. But some analysts in Europe are saying these companies may choose to focus on growing their business on their home continent.

“For European companies, the demographics are better for them to expand into other parts of Europe, like Warsaw or the Czech Republic,” than to the United States, said Charles Coyne, an insurance analyst at WestLB Panmure in London.

Aegon, which bought TransAmerica Corp. in July 1999, is not considered a likely acquirer, at least not in the near future, said Roger Hill, an insurance analyst at UBS Warburg in London.

Mr. Hill’s chief complaint these days about Aegon as a company is that its growth has been driven by acquisition. “How big does the next buy have to be to keep them growing?” he asks. Aegon has $230 billion of assets under management.

Though some other analysts said Aegon might be in the market this year, Mr. Coyne said it is unlikely to make another move here soon. And because 65% of its business already comes from the United States, Aegon would probably do best to make its next acquisition elsewhere, he said.

Axa and ING have also been mentioned as continuing to look in this country, but neither is likely to buy here soon, European analysts said. Axa owns the former Equitable Life Assurance Co. and ING bought ReliaStar last September and Aetna’s life insurance and financial services operation in December.

“ING’s moves were well received, but they’re finished for now,” Mr. Hill said.

Allianz’s name was bandied about early last week, right after the announcement of the American General deal. Rumors floated that Allianz would make a hostile bid for Houston-based American General.

Analysts interviewed this week said that will not happen, but they split on whether the German company will soon try for another U.S. operation.

Mr. Coyne said that is unlikely. Allianz has made it very clear that it wants to concentrate on its U.K. business, he said.

But several analysts, including Colin Devine of Citigroup Inc.’s Salomon Smith Barney in New York, said Allianz might bid for an American life and annuity insurer.

“Allianz wants a company with a great distribution system in place, so they can sell Allianz products,” Mr. Devine said. “The life and annuity industry is a growth industry in the U.S. and Allianz wants to be a part of it.”

UBS’ Mr. Hill concurred, saying that if Allianz wants to become a global player it will have to build its U.S. life insurance business. Life is “the growth business,” he said, and that could be a good direction for Allianz.

Allianz’s U.S. activity consists mainly of property and casualty coverage for businesses and individuals. It owns Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. of Novato, Calif., as well as several life insurance companies, including Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America in Minneapolis.

James Auden, a senior director in Chicago with the ratings firm Fitch Inc., said there are still American life and annuity companies that could be ripe for the taking. Among them is the investment and insurance company Lincoln Financial Group of Philadelphia, which has $103 billion of assets under management.

“I’d bet a European company has as good a chance as any to buy a life and annuity company in the U.S.,” Mr. Auden said. “There is a lot of capital in Europe, and they seem to be willing to pay higher multiples.”

Jeffrey Shuman, the life insurance analyst in Keefe, Bruyette & Woods’ Hartford, Conn., office, also sees Lincoln as a target — as well as the much smaller Jefferson Pilot Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., which manages $23.7 billion of assets. And he said not to rule out a European suitor.

“Now that American General is gone, it’s pretty clear that we’re at another level of size as far as companies in consolidation mode are concerned,” Mr. Shuman said. “If the European companies are going to continue to pay for the large transactions, they’ll end up involved again.”

Mr. Devine said Lincoln is ripe for purchase. “It might not be immediate, but if someone offered them three times book,” which would work out to $15 billion, “they might bite,” Mr. Devine said.

“About a dozen companies could be out looking to buy, and only two or three companies might come available, so some of these companies waiting to jump in are running out of opportunities,” Mr. Devine said. “Allianz is one of them.”

A Lincoln Financial spokeswoman said the company will not discuss merger speculation.

Mr. Devine also said John Hancock Financial Services Inc. in Boston, which demutualized in January 2000, may be a takeover target, even though the company cannot legally be acquired until Jan. 27, 2002, without permission from the Massachusetts Department of Insurance.

“I think Hancock is 12 to 18 months away from considering [a merger], but it’s a very attractive company,” Mr. Devine said. Hancock has $125.2 billion of assets under management. (A Hancock spokeswoman also declined to discuss such prospects.)

Some analysts said they would still bet against a U.S. bank’s buying a life and annuity provider.

“It’s not impossible, but we don’t sense they’re interested in being underwriters,” Mr. Shuman said. “They’re focused on distributing insurance. And while some banks seem to want to take a broader role in insurance, owning an underwriter isn’t where they’re headed.”

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