Valley National Bancorp has long been one of the most efficient banks in the nation. Now, however, more people may notice.

By virtue of its own growth, both internal and by acquisition, along with the mergers that eliminated some larger banks, the Wayne, N.J.-based super community institution joined the ranks of the top 100 bank holding companies last year.

In that group, the $4.5 billion-asset bank immediately qualified as the most efficient, based on the ratio of noninterest expense per dollar of revenue.

Valley National's efficiency ratio for the first nine months of 1995 was 43.30%, down from 45.28% in 1994.

That was enough to displace Fifth Third Bancorp, the famously efficient Cincinnati institution that held the top spot.

Chief executive Gerald H. Lipkin said Valley National's consistently low efficiency ratio is due largely to expense control, and not revenue growth. Expenses, he noted, are the only part of the equation over which a bank has control.

How does Valley National do it? Just watch where you spend your money, said Mr. Lipkin. Before we spend 10 cents, we make sure it's necessary. It's as simple as that.

In addition to the efficiency ratio, the bank can also boast of generally superior performance. Since 1973, earnings per share have grown each year, with one exception - 1990.

Since 1982, return on average equity has topped 19% in all but two years. (That ratio dipped to a low in 1990 - 14.5%.)

The annualized return on assets for the first nine months of 1995 was 1.54%.

But although his bank is tops in efficiency, Mr. Lipkin doesn't view it as especially thrifty - which may say more about the industry generally than it does about Valley National.

We always try to do better, said Mr. Lipkin, adding that there is potential for reducing expenses in all areas of its operations.

The steady improvements in efficiency at Valley National, Fifth Third, and other banks also raises the question: How low can the ratio go?

Mr. Lipkin compared paring down the efficiency ratio to the game Name That Tune, in which players try to identify a song after hearing the fewest number of notes.

Maybe somebody will get it with one note, he joked.

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