The total price tag of newly announced bank mergers soared to $16.5 billion in the third quarter, propelled by NationsBank Corp.'s agreement with Boatmen's Bancshares.

The price of St. Louis-based Boatmen's - $9.75 billion, or 2.7 times book value - helped keep deal prices overall at a high level. Thrift buyout prices also were rich after several major deals.

According to data from SNL Securities, the average ratio of deal price to book value during the third quarter was 199.1 for whole-bank deals, up significantly from 190.4 in the previous quarter, and 149.4 for whole- thrift deals, up from 136.1.

The third-quarter burst of activity shattered the previous calm and dashed notions that takeover prices were too high for consolidation to continue at last year's record pace.

"Actually, I'm surprised there haven't been more mergers announced with stock prices at these levels," said industry analyst Michael K. Diana of Bear, Stearns & Co., New York. "Bank stocks seem to go up and up.

"It may be that sellers think they should still be getting the same premiums over the market that they were getting when the stocks were lower," he said. "If so, they are wrong and could miss out. Some would be better off selling now, at market."

Merger activity, lagging way behind last year's pace, may finally be shifting into higher gear. The July-September quarter was the first this year with three large deals.

In addition to NationsBank-Boatmen's, there was Washington Mutual Inc.'s $1.6 billion agreement to purchase American Savings Bank, Irvine, Calif., and First Nationwide Bank's proposed $1.2 billion buyout of Cal Fed Bancorp.

Both prices were robust for the thrift realm. American Savings is going for 1.5 times book value, Cal Fed for nearly 1.7 times.

The brisker pace of dealmaking has extended into the fourth quarter - notably in St. Louis where Mercantile Bancorp. said this week it would pay $855 million - 2.8 times book - for rival Mark Twain Bancshares.

Through the first nine months of the year, the leading merger adviser in whole bank deals was Goldman, Sachs & Co., which had a hand in seven transactions valued at almost $24 billion.

During the third quarter, the New York investment banking firm advised a major seller, Boatmen's Bancshares, and a major buyer, First Nationwide Bank.

The other leading firms, through Sept. 30, are CS First Boston Corp., New York, with four deals valued at $15.4 billion; Morgan Stanley & Co., New York, two deals at $13.1 billion, and Montgomery Securities, San Francisco, six deals at $12.5 billion.

Among legal advisers, the New York law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom was tops through Sept. 30., with a hand in four deals valued at $14 billion.

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