WASHINGTON - Hoping to resolve potential antitrust obstacles to their planned merger, Fleet Financial Group and Shawmut National Corp. said Wednesday that they would sell 64 branches with $3.2 billion of deposits.
After the divestitures, Fleet and Shawmut would control $81 billion of assets and operate 1,127 branches in six states.
The selloff would be one of the largest in history - "certainly among the top three" - said Michael Greenspan, a partner at Thompson & Mitchell in Washington.
The banks, which announced their $3.7 billion merger agreement in February, plan to shed 18 branches in Massachusetts, 28 in Connecticut, 13 in Rhode Island, and five in New Hampshire. All but six are Shawmut branches.
Fleet senior vice president Anne Slattery, who will run the branch network once the merger is completed, said the Justice Department wants the banks to find a single buyer for the branches in each market.
"We believe there is a very strong possibility" that Fleet will be able to meet that demand, Ms. Slattery said. "Since the original announcement of the merger in February, we have heard a great deal of interest from around the country."
Fleet will mail bid packages to interested parties this week. It expects to have signed deals within three months. Officials at the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve Board then must approve the sales before the Fleet-Shawmut merger can be completed.
"We are eager to move this along as quickly as possible," Ms. Slattery said. "So we will move as fast as we can."
Fleet and Shawmut still expect to consummate their merger late this year, she said.
Ms. Slattery said the size of the divestiture does not affect the deal's value. Fleet will still add 275 branches to its network, she said.
The divestitures also will not affect Fleet's or Shawmut's community reinvestment commitments, said Agnes J. Bundy, Fleet's director of community development.
"Fleet has committed to maintain the same combined Fleet-Shawmut levels of low- to moderate-income lending and charitable contributions in these markets for the next two years," she said.
Connecticut and Massachusetts officials praised the plan. "We have shaped a plan that promises to be fair and beneficial," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said. "It is a package that combines quality with quantity: The branches are healthy, well-established, and well-located, with ample potential for growth."
"The banking operation buying these branches instantly becomes a preeminent participant in Connecticut banking," he said.