It's nap time for New England's hungry monsters, as the area's four giant regionals take a break after lunch - giving community banks some breathing room.
After months of heightened acquisition activity, Fleet Financial Group Inc. and Citizens Financial Group Inc., both of Providence, and Bank of Boston Corp. and Shawmut National Corp., both of Boston, are staying off the active buying path, possibly for a few months, while they digest the food on their plates, analysts say.
The hiatus of the Four Horsemen, as one analyst dubbed them, is creating chances for acquisitive community banks to grow.
"We feel that the opportunity for our company is actually to look at the kinds of banks those larger companies might or might not be interested in which would be a really good fit for our community banking type business," said William H. Chadwick, president and CEO of Banknorth Group Inc., Burlington, Vt.
"We have an appetite of our own for some acquisitions," said Brian Arsenault, spokesman for People's Heritage Financial Group of Portland, Maine. "We see it as a time of opportunity and a time to work real hard and win over some customers."
But community bankers aren't even sure if they are really witnessing a hiatus.
"It doesn't seem like there have been any announcements for a while," Mr. Arsenault said. "I'm not sure it's a break; maybe it's just a lull."
"It has been kind of quiet in recent months," said Mark A. Gavin, chief financial officer for CFX Corp., Keene, N.H. But he added with a laugh, "I'm sure they're not done."
"We're in a pause situation," said James Moynihan of the Advest Group. "They certainly want to continue their merger/acquisition plans, but until they put everything to bed, I don't think we're going to see much merger activity for the next three months."
Currently, the big boys all have deals pending from as far back as March, which analysts say are keeping them busy. That includes Bank of Boston's sale of Bank of Vermont in Burlington and Casco Northern Bank in Portland, Maine, to Keycorp.
On top of this deal, the four banks have acquired five mid-sized community banks since June.
"There's a period of digestion that is necessary," said Stanley T. Wells, executive vice president of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in Hartford. "They get a couple of deals on their plate and then all of a sudden, they're less aggressive until they get those things buttoned down and properly financed."
"That's partially true," agreed Shawmut spokesman Brent S. DiGiorgio. "You want to ensure that the banks you acquire are melded into your bank structure properly and you don't want to rush that process. But you can't stop and pause for very long because there's a limited universe of merger candidates and should you pause too long, you might miss a specific opportunity."
But Mr. Wells doubted that the banks are hesitating at all, saying, "Just because they don't have something to announce today doesn't mean they're taking the day off."
"Your four banks are probably talking to other banks, looking for, and trying to develop other opportunities that haven't come to a head yet," he said. "I have no reason to believe that the four major acquirers aren't active."
Citizens, at least, is planning to sit back for a while after making five deals that will put the company's assets at $10.2 billion, just over the corporate goal of $10 billion, said senior vice president James R. Dorsey.
"We've hit that initial goal and so we feel comfortable in taking a little bit of time in making sure that we get everyone merged properly into our systems," Mr. Dorsey said. "We don't feel any pressure to grow."
In the meantime, bankers and analysts say, there are plenty of smaller banks ready to jump in."'