Think of Mark Twain Bancshares - the St. Louis bank whose merger talks with an undisclosed institution failed last week - as the most magnificent house on the toniest street in town, an analyst suggested.

The house is not for sale, but passersby gawk, and some even inquire about buying it. The owners politely invite them in but ultimately turn them away without a deal.

That's likely what occurred last week when the $2.8 billion-asset Mark Twain, one of the most profitable banks in the country, said merger talks had collapsed - the day after confirming it had been negotiating a sale, said Joseph A. Stieven, bank analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. in St. Louis.

"I don't think they have a for sale sign out front, but they easily have one of the most desirable properties around," Mr. Stieven said. "It's not hard to believe that they could end up in discussions."

Though most believe last week's events officially put the St. Louis jewel in play, the bank still holds all the cards. It also holds a lot of the stock - about 25% is owned by insiders - making it difficult to claim management is not acting in the interest of shareholders.

But if the bank is in play, it's nothing new, said John P. Dubinsky, Mark Twain's chief executive.

"In part because of our track record we have been very visible for a number of years," he said. "So we're no more or less in play than we've always been. But the fact is there are not many others around that have the ability to talk to us about improving our situation."

That's hard to dispute. The third quarter marked the 18th consecutive quarter of record earnings for Mark Twain. Earnings per share increased by 17% above a year earlier, about the pace it has maintained for the last decade. The bank's profitability, including an 18.6% return on equity in the third quarter, places it among the top 5% of bank's nationwide, he said.

"There's no pressure on them to do a thing," said Mr. Stieven. "Superior financial performance gives you all the options."

Though Mr. Dubinsky would not comment on the rumors about last week's likely suitor for the bank - said to have included First Bank System Inc., Norwest Corp. and Fifth Third Bancorp - he did say it was someone Mark Twain had spoken with for some time.

"We've had a long history of talking with those folks," he said. "It just intensified recently." He added that he did not know if the talks would ever resume, though analysts said that would be unlikely.

Others suggested that to remain a strong performer in the bank's niche market - catering to small and medium-sized businesses, Mark Twain will have to search out new markets and eventually seek a sale.

"In the near-term, could they continue to do fine without being acquired?" asked Christine A. Pavel, bank analyst with Chicago Corp. "Yes, I think so. But at the end of the day, will a $3 billion-asset bank remain independent? Probably not."

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