After publicly declaring its interest in the American market, ABN Amro Holding has shown some signs that it's gearing up for a major acquisition.
The Amsterdam-based banking giant hired Morgan Stanley & Co. to advise it on a possible bid on Boatmen's Bancshares but withdrew from the process short of a formal offer for the St. Louis bank.
Also this week, ABN Amro joined such large American banks as BankAmerica Corp., NationsBank Corp., and Banc One Corp., in unveiling a home banking joint venture with International Business Machines Corp. aimed at retail depositors.
Banks contributed several millions to the new on-line venture, called Integrion, and had developed the project over the past two years.
"It would be logically consistent," for ABN Amro to bid for Boatmen's, said Raphael Soifer, a bank analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.
"At a meeting a couple of weeks ago, the controller of the parent company, Wilco ten Berg, said that their strategy in North America would include possible further acquisitions of banks in Illinois and surrounding areas," Mr. Soifer said.
ABN has been steadily building its presence in the American market over the past few years; in March, it bought Comerica Inc.'s Illinois branches for $190 million.
Thus far, the acquisitions, which include the securities firm Chicago Corp., have been well received and have driven revenues for the bank.
"Most of the acquisitions have given the group positive return on equity leverage, and as such have been welcome," said Matthew Czepliewicz, a bank analyst in London for Salomon Brothers Inc.
The U.S. market, which accounts for 21% of its profits while accounting for just 17% of its assets, is an important one to the world's 12th-largest bank.
"As the U.S. banking sector consolidates and major players become even more powerful, banks like ABN Amro are almost forced to play catch-up," Mr. Czepliewicz said. "What is now perhaps a critical market share in Illinois and a meaningful market share in the Midwest might not be so going forward."
Nonetheless, an acquisition the size of Boatmen's would have been a major strategic move.
Acquiring the $40 billion asset St. Louis bank would have more than tripled the size of ABN Amro's U.S. retail banking business.
"For ABN Amro, that is an awfully big bite," Mr. Czepliewicz said. "I can't imagine they would be willing to put that kind of pressure on their capital ratios. They would have been severely downgraded by the market, more so perhaps than NationsBank."
Analysts said ABN Amro's commitment to Integrion reflected its interest in the market.
"It's hard not to see it as a deeper commitment to the U.S. retail market," Mr. Czepliewicz said.
To be sure, some experts were surprised to see the Dutch giant alongside the likes of BankAmerica and NationsBank in the new joint venture.
"It's hard to know exactly what they are up to," said an investment banker, who did not want to be identified. "What they should do and what they are doing are two different things," he said, pointing to the 1990 acquisition of European American Bank.
Had ABN emerged the winning bidder for Boatmen's, the banks in the immediate area would be facing a very different competitor.
"It would have been less threatening to the competition, because they are perceived as not having as many product capabilities as NationsBank," the investment banker said.
Michael Smith of Bloomberg Business News contributed to this article.