Hibernia Corp. chief executive Stephen A. Hansel raised a few eyebrows at a recent shareholders meeting when he described his New Orleans-based bank as "a candidate to be acquired." The question is: Was Mr. Hansel hinting about anything specific?

Hibernia's status as an attractive acquisition candidate has long been recognized in the industry. With $7.5 billion of assets, it is the second- largest bank in Louisiana, enjoying healthy deposit shares in the state's major markets.

It is also no secret that Banc One Corp., which owns Baton Rouge-based Premier Bancorp, periodically expresses an interest in acquiring one of the big New Orleans banks, most recently at an analysts' conference in New York in March.

But according to bank analysts, none of that means Hibernia is currently negotiating with Banc One or anybody else.

"Steve knows how the game is played," said John Coffey, with the Robinson-Humphrey Co. in Atlanta. "Any bank CEO with a sense of the market is always going to say the company's for sale - at a price.

"I don't doubt that they've received some overtures," Mr. Coffey added. "But our sense is there's still some opportunity for them in their own markets and their intention is to remain independent."

Mr. Hansel made his remark at an April 23 meeting in response to a shareholder who asked whether Hibernia considered itself an acquisition candidate.

Mr. Hansel, referring to the bank's credit problems earlier in the decade, said, "We went from being a candidate to fail back in 1992 to being a candidate to be acquired."

Mr. Hansel went on to add that he much preferred the latter status, which he viewed as "a natural outgrowth" of the bank's "increasingly valuable" franchise and improving fundamentals.

But according to Bear Stearns banking analyst Michael K. Diana, Mr. Hansel's comments did not "represent anything new or different."

Indeed, in a telephone conversation earlier this week, Mr. Hansel reiterated that no deal is imminent. "The company is not for sale today, except on the New York Stock Exchange," he said.

Hibernia has been on a major acquisition binge since recovering from those earlier credit problems. The latest purchase was $774 million-asset Calcasieu Marine National Bank in the southwest part of the state.

When that deal and a smaller one close later this year, Hibernia will have $8.5 billion of assets.

Until now, Hibernia has concentrated its acquisitions in-state. But at last week's shareholders meeting, Mr. Hansel said the bank would consider venturing into neighboring Texas, Alabama, or Mississippi.

Mr. Coffey said Hibernia needs an active acquisition strategy to leverage its excessively high capital base. Hibernia's equity-to-assets ratio, a legacy of regulatory requirements earlier in the decade, was 9.89% at the end of the first quarter, compared with an average 8.5% for its regional peers.

"With 10% capital-to-assets, it's very difficult to earn 15% on equity," Mr. Coffey said.

Hibernia returned 13.35% on equity in the first quarter.

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