with further purchases, analysts and investment bankers believe.
ABN insists it is not about to make any new deals soon, but observers believe the heat is on for the Dutch-owned company to snap up either Grand Rapids-based Old Kent Financial Corp. or Kalamazoo's First of America Bank Corp., or both, before its competitors do.
For ABN, which in May purchased Troy-based Standard Federal Bank, acquiring the western Michigan thrifts would fill out its presence in the state. Both are considered to be plums for any hungry buyer with an eye on the Midwest: their franchises are well developed, and management is solid. Furthermore, they have a strong presence in Illinois, the home state of ABN Amro North America.
Said Thomas Hanley, managing director and analyst at UBS Securities: "You can't establish a franchise in a state with one thrift. ABN has to buy another bank there (in Michigan) whether it be a First of America or an Old Kent."
ABN insists it's in no hurry to expand in the United States or elsewhere in the world, having established itself in 71 countries and with $341 billion of assets as of Dec. 31. Its U.S. fortress, including securities firm Chicago Corp. which it bought in January, has surged from more than $5 billion in 1989 to roughly $100 billion of assets in just eight years. That's about the size of U.S. superregional Banc One Corp., making ABN the largest foreign bank in the United States.
Thomas Heagy, chief financial officer of Chicago-based ABN Amro North America, said it will take at least a year to swallow Standard Federal, a $15.8 billion thrift and mortgage banker. That task, along with others that include fine-tuning the company's marketing strategy and providing a more uniform banking system among institutions under the LaSalle umbrella, are enough to contend with for now.
"We have no plans for further acquisitions in the U.S.. There's not a need to build up our current market share," said Mr. Heagy, who is the lead man for ABN's U.S. purchases under ABN Amro North America CEO Harrison Tempest.
Some analysts say ABN should be able to absorb Standard Federal in less than one year. "I don't buy the fact that because of integration they need to wait," said one London analyst. "I didn't think it would be that big a deal; there doesn't seem to be a lot of staff cutting.
Added Michael Hodes, analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York: "ABN is a veteran at this; you're not acquiring the most complicated company in the world," unlike, for example, Wells Fargo & Co.'s troubled and hostile buyout of First Interstate Bancorp.
Wells Fargo stock last week plummeted amid news the San Francisco bank was running into higher-than-anticipated costs associated with its digestion of First Interstate.
Mr. Heagy cited little overlap between Standard Federal and ABN; the company already has announced the closing of some branches in the Chicago area from Standard Federal's purchase of Bell Federal Savings.
These analysts argue that the clock is ticking for ABN. The prices of financial institutions, already high now, will become even more expensive, while ABN's midwestern competitors circle in closer to their targets, these observers predict. "We expect mergers and acquisitions to pick up very quickly between the release of second-quarter earnings and Labor Day," said Mr. Hanley, a longtime bull on bank stocks. "The stock market's going to 8000, and banks will be bought for 19-to-20 times earnings; they've been going at 18 times earnings."
Both Old Kent and First of America have been fairly adamant about staying independent, although First of America lately has been less so, noted Mr. Hanley. "The emphasis is coming across that they'd do what's best for shareholders," he said. One U.S. banker familiar with ABN's strategy pointed out that the Standard Federal acquisition makes an ABN buyout of Old Kent even more likely than in the past. That's because of Standard Federal CEO Scott Heitmann's long-standing relationship with Old Kent, where he began his career.
Raphael Soifer, who follows ABN at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York, said that while he didn't see much urgency for ABN to make further acquisitions, the company has opened the door to new capital with its recent debut on the New York Stock Exchange. "They listed their shares because they want an acquisition currency," said Mr. Soifer.
Mr. Soifer, however, isn't convinced the next purchase will necessarily be either a bank or a thrift. "Their strategy needs are U.S. money managers and investment banking. Chicago Corp. is not the end of their" pursuit in investment banking, said Mr. Soifer. "At this point they feel price is an obstacle; any substantial acquisition would have to await a bear market."
This analyst and a few others believe ABN is betting the U.S. economy will slow, which would put a damper on earnings growth and, in turn, put a brake on accelerating stock prices of banks and other financial services firms. "ABN feels it has time to wait. In the mean time, it will look for targets of opportunities," he said.
Those targets include the following lineup: Milwaukee-based Firstar Corp., which has a good presence in Minneapolis and in the northern fringes of the Chicago area, noted Robert Ollech, analyst at Principal Financial Services. Firstar, with about $20 billion of assets would represent an even bigger acquisition for ABN than was Standard Federal. It's also rather expensive, trading at nearly 3 times its book value. However, its recent cost-cutting moves make it a prime candidate for building up a franchise, said Mr. Ollech. Columbus, Ohio-based $20-billion Huntington Bancshares, also trading near 3 times book, would be a good fit with its market share in Michigan and Indiana.
By comparison, Old Kent's price-tag is somewhat more affordable at 2.75 times book, and its $13 billion-asset size make it an easier bite to chew. An even cheaper buy is $22-billion First of America, which trades at 1.60 times book, noted Mr. Ollech.
Other, more ambitious targets analysts cited were Key Corp. and Comerica, although these might be too large for ABN to swallow, at least for now. ABN, in fact, may already have enough of Comerica with last year's purchase of Comerica's $1.3-billion Illinois franchise.
But if ABN doesn't act now on the smaller-to-midsize purchases, which are vanishing fast, it may have no choice but to choke on a bigger one later.