ABN Amro Holding NV, the largest Dutch banking company, reported better-than-expected earnings Thursday, fueled by strong revenues from its North American lending operations and investment banking.

Net earnings of the Amsterdam-based company rose 40.6% last year, to $2.55 billion.

"The United States was a big contributor to ABN Amro's North America operations, which had profits that were up 16%" at $1.12 billion, said Raphael Soifer, an analyst at Brown Brothers Harriman.

ABN Amro is the second-largest banking company in the Chicago area, as owner of LaSalle National Corp. ABN bought LaSalle in 1979 and merged with Amro in 1990.

The Dutch company also owns European American Bank, which it bought in 1990. And in 1998 it bought Standard Federal Bank of Troy, Mich.,

Last year's profit increase "was primarily attributable to sustained growth in middle-market lending at LaSalle" and to European American's strong performance, the company said in a press release. "Provision for loan losses rose in 1999 to more normal levels, after dropping to exceptionally low levels in the previous year."

Mr. Soifer noted that "at a time when some regional banks are having a hard time, reporting difficulty growing the top line, ABN Amro's revenue is growing rapidly.

He said the North American division was also profitable because of the strong economic environment, which helped boost lending, and because of the appreciation of the dollar against the euro.

Pre-tax profits of ABN Amro's international division, which includes the North American operations, rose 40%, to $2.19 million.

One of the biggest contributors was Latin America, because of Banco Real in Brazil, which ABN Amro bought in 1998. The Latin American businesses earned $572 million before taxes, of which $364 million came from Banco Real.

The profitable year raises the possibility that ABN Amro, which has been on a buying spree in Europe, may turn its sights to the United States, where bank stocks are languishing.

ABN Amro executives say they "will continue to look at companies in the United States, although they do not have a particular company in mind," Mr. Soifer said. "But if they decide to do a deal, chances are they will not do a large one." ABN Amro has typically spent from under $1 billion to several billion dollars for banks, he said.


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