The reviving Oklahoma banking industry has become a magnet for interstate acquirers.

Just two weeks ago, Ohio's Bank One Corp. struck a deal to enter the territory. Both st. Louis-based Boatmen's Bancshares Inc. and Wichita, Kan.-based Fourth Financial Corp. are building statewide operations in Oklahoma. And other banks in Oklahoma. And other banks in Arkansas and Missouri are known to be scouting the state's fragmented banking market.

"Oklahoma is another Southwest sector recovering from tough times and you will be seeing a large number of merger transactions," said Joseph A. Stieven, a bank analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. in St. Louis.

Several factors have converged to make Oklahoma attractive: A decade-long recession, fueled by energy and realty has collapses, has ended. Banks have regained their health. And out-of-state superregionals are eager to take advantage of consolidated opportunities neglected during the decade of crisis.

The major catalyst for the cross-border drive is the stabilization of Oklahoma's economy. Between 1985 and 1990, 110 banks in the state failed, at a cost of $1.25 billion, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. But today, credit quality and profitability at the state's banks exceed national averages.

ROA Hit 1.24%

Excluding extraordinary gains, Oklahoma banks reported a strong 1.24% annualized return on average assets for the first quarter.

That compares with an of 1.03%, before extraordinary items, for the U.S. banking industry. And the ratio of nonperforming assets to total assets at March 31 was 1.48% for Oklahoma banks, compared with a national average of 2.4%.

Another factor driving the superregional acquirers is their ability to exploit a fragmented market. Oklahoma's banks hold just $30 billion of assets, but they are split among 442 bank charters, according to the Sheshunoff Information Services.

Consolidation Opportunities

The inefficient setup spells opportunity for bigger bank companies experienced in the ways of branc conversions and computer automation.

"The attractiveness of Oklahoma flows from consolidation opportunities," said William Boardman, the senior executive vice president in charge of Banc One's acquisition strategy.

To be sure, no one is forecasting an economic boom. Average quarterly employment grew by 0.4% between March 1992 and March 1993, less than half the nationwide rate, according to Timothy Smith, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Oklahoma's energy sector, he warned, is still languishing.

"There really isn't any major engine to propel the Oklahoma economy ahead," he said.

On the other hand, Oklahoma banks -- fueled by consumer credits -- posted a 6.5% increase in total loans during the 12 months ended March 31.

Banc One launched its incursion into Oklahoma in May, buying Central Banking Group in Oklahoma City. It has $541 million of assets, and operates two banks and a life insurance company.

Fourth Financial has been far more aggressive. The company sprinted into its neighboring state as soon as Kansas relaxed its banking laws last fall. By the end of this year, it will own 38 Oklahoma banking offices with $1.9 billion of assets.

Fourth Financial hopes to build a statewide operation with as much as $4 billion of assets, said Michael J. Shonka, the chief financial officer.

Boatman's likewise wants to expand beyond its current $1.8 billion of Oklahoma banking assets, said James Kienker, the chief financial officer.

Arkansas Rivals Interested

Arkansas also may join the roundup. Worthen Banking Corp. has "a high degree of interest" in eastern Oklahoma, said chief financial officer Andrew Melton.

And its Little Rock neighbor, First Commercial Corp., is scouting central Oklahoma, said Lynn Wright, the company's chief financial officer. (First Commercial has co-owned a $200 million-asset bank in Norman, Okla., since 1987.)

Some observers also mention United Missouri Bancshares Inc. of St. Louis as a potential acquirer. A company spokeswoman declined to comment.

The Oklahoma companies most often mentioned as takeover targets are Tulsa's BOK Financial Corp., which has $2.6 billion of assets, and Liberty Bancorp of Oklahoma City, with $2.2 billion of assets.

However, Stanley A. Lybarger, BOK's president, said his company will stick withplans to keep its shares under local control. Mr. Stieven, the banking analyst, said Liberty is closely held by insiders who show no interest in selling.

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