Mergers have clearly been the most positive force on bank stocks this year, but most gains were short-lived and far less pervasive than losses stemming from disastrous real estate investments.

Banks being acquired posted three of the five biggest gains in the American Banker index of 225 banking stocks so far in 1991. "That's obviously where you mine the gold," said James G. Ehlen Jr. of UBS Securities Inc., New York.

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