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.

Cleveland's Ameritrust Corp., to be merged with rival Society Corp., leads with a 225.4% gain. First National Pennsylvania Corp., Erie, Pa., being bought by Pittsburgh's PNC Financial Corp., is second at 220.7%. Merchants National Corp., Indianapolis, to be merged into National City Corp., Cleveland, rose 137.3%.

Acquirers Underperform

But acquirers, including Society and Chemical Banking Corp., which agreed to acquire Manufacturers Hanover Trust, "have visibly underperformed the bank universe since their respective announcements," according to a new research report from Merrill Lynch & Co.

The five steepest drops occurred at banks mired in bad real estate. "In most sections of the country, the long national real estate recession continues as 1991 draws to a close," noted Anthony R. Davis of Wheat, First Securities, Richmond.

Beleaguered Hibernia Corp., New Orleans, which is searching for a merger partner, suffered a 62.3% price drop. Riggs National Corp., Washington, hurt by a depressed local market around the nation's capital, is off 52.9%.

Real estate headaches have weakened California bank stocks. The hardest hit were Pacific Western Bancshares, San Jose, down 34.8%, and City National Corp., Beverly Hills, off 17.5%. Wells Fargo & Co., San Francisco, fell 3%.

The largest U.S. bank suffered the biggest decline. Shares of Citicorp tumbled 23%, and Tuesday dipped below the $10 level for the first time in 11 years. They were off 12.5 cents on Wednesday to $9.625.1991's Biggest Gainers... Change in price from Dec 31 *Ameritrust Corp. +255.38%First NationalPennsylvania Corp. +220.68First American Corp. +168.63MerchantsNational Corp. +137.29Premier Bancorp +136.36And Biggest DeclinersHibernia Corp. -62.26%Riggs National Corp. -52.86Pacific Western -34.78BansharesImperial Bancorp. -33.66North Fork Bancorp. -30.43 * Through Dec. 9 Source: SNL Securities

Not all big value gainers were takeover targets. "Improving fundamentals certainly had a part in price movements for Michigan National Corp. and Valley National Corp.," noted Denis LaPlante of Fox-Pitt Kelton Inc., New York.

Valley National, Phoenix, still recovering from Arizona's damaged property market, was up 135.6%, while Michigan National, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., gained 125.4%.

The 136% gain by Premier Bancorp, Baton Rouge, followed an equity injection from Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, that might lead to an acquisition. New management and a sense the worst may be over for the Tennessee realty market helped First American Corp., Nashville, gain 168.6%.

Stark Contrast in New York

While mergers boosted banks being taken over, the acquirers fared much less well. National City has eked out a mere 2% gain. Manufacturers Hanover has gained just 15%, while Chemical, its merger partner, is up nearly 100%.

And nervousness about West Coast real estate has apparently tempered market enthusiasm for the matchup of Bank-America Corp. and Security Pacific Corp. Security is up just 19% and BankAmerica 18%. The American Banker index, meanwhile, is up 41.9% since the start of 1991.

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