There was no bargain shopping in the July round of merger and acquisition activity: Banks agreed to pay some of the heftiest prices in recent memory.

Twenty-five banking companies announced $4.4 billion of deals to buy banks and thrift institutions. Thirty such purchases, totaling $13.5 billion, were completed in the month.

According to Sheshunoff Information Services Inc., the average price for bank deals announced in July was 2.31 times book value, up from 2.1 in the second quarter and 1.9 in the first.

The prices averaged 20 times 1996 earnings, up from 17 times in the second quarter and the first.

By far the biggest and priciest deal announced in the month, on July 21, was First Union Corp.'s to buy Signet Banking Corp. of Richmond, Va.

The agreement was First Union's first after two years on the merger sidelines. The $3.3 billion price is 3.5 times book value; that's among the highest such multiples ever in a major bank deal.

Other sizable deals announced in the month include Western Bancorp's for Santa Monica Bank, made public July 31; Hibernia Corp.'s for Argentbank of Thibodaux, La., announced July 16; and Zions Bancorp's for GB Bancorp of San Diego, announced July 7.

Western is to pay $198.2 million, Hibernia $190 million, and Zions $173 million-respectively 2.72, 2.81, and 3.67 times book.

Such multiples are way above what most thrifts have been fetching. Few thrift deals were announced in July, but thrift prices averaged 1.78 times book in the year ended July 31, and in the past few quarters some thrift multiples have approached those in bank deals.

In one July deal, New York's North Fork Bancorp. said it would pay $38 million for Branford (Conn.) Savings Bank.

In another, Carolina First Corp. agreed to pay $52.2 million for First Southeast Financial Corp., Anderson, S.C.

Pricey thrift and bank acquisitions completed in July included Washington Mutual's Inc. of Great Western Financial Corp., Chatsworth, Calif.; First Maryland Bancorp's of Dauphin Deposit Corp., Harrisburg, Pa; and Mercantile Bancorp's of Roosevelt Financial Group, Chesterfield, Mo.

The prices-respectively $8.4 billion, $1.5 billion, and $1.1 billion- were 3.3, 2.3, and 3 times book value. And CCB Financial Corp. paid an even higher 3.6 times book in its $427.6 million purchase of American Federal Bank.

Also last month, banking companies announced a lot of deals to buy nonbanks. Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, said it would acquire Fitzgerald, Davis & Associates, and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce announced it would pay $525 million for Oppenheimer & Co.

Sovereign Bancorp of Wyomissing, Pa., agreed to buy the auto finance division of Fleet Financial Group; and Amcore Financial Inc. Rockford, Ill., said it would pay $1.7 billion for Investors Management Group Inc., Des Moines.

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