Sterne Agee's investment bankers were busy pairing banks last year, but many are now likely busy wondering about their future.

Stifel Financial in St. Louis announced plans last month to buy Sterne Agee Group, but the motivation for the deal was the Birmingham, Ala., company's retail brokerage and fixed income group. Stifel recently agreed to sell Sterne Agee's equities business to CRT Capital, while the status of the seller's investment bank remains in flux.

Representatives for Stifel and Sterne Agee, who said at the time of the CRT announcement that they were still considering the investment bank's future, did not return calls last week seeking an update.

Few industry observers were willing to publicly discuss the unit's fate, acknowledging the sensitivity in talking about the situation. Still, some observers who asked not to be named said they believe Stifel and Sterne may need to move quickly if they wish to sell the entire business. Any delay could cause uneasiness among banks that had hired Sterne Agee to represent them in deals, and some could look to terminate their agreements with the investment bank is uncertainly continues.

"If I were a client who just signed up, I'd be asking what is going to happen," said one adviser who is following the situation closely. "I just don't know if they are going to get an answer."

Some observers said a sale is unlikely for now. Stifel could essentially wind down the business as talent defects, perhaps folding some people into the company's Keefe, Bruyette & Woods unit. Several investment bankers said their firms would be interested in hiring select bankers.

Sterne Agree placed third in the league tables last year for whole bank M&A, handling 18 bank deals, landing well behind Sandler O'Neill and KBW. Still, it was a marked improvement from its seventh-place finish in 2013, when the firm oversaw nine deals.

The investment bank's 2014 deals tended to be smaller in size and concentrated in the Northeast, though the firm notably advised Simmons First National in Pine Bluff, Ark., on three acquisitions.

Several observers were doubtful that the business would be sold as a whole, given the challenges in bank M&A. Though the volume of deals is rising, acquisitions are still largely made up of community banks buying peers at relatively low premiums.

"Investment banks would need to perform due diligence on the team and the FIG business because taking on the whole thing would be a risky proposition," said Jeff Marsico, an executive vice president at Kafafian Group. "You'd be taking on significant fixed costs for a variable business in a sinking line of work."

Still, a chance to pick up the whole team could be a major boon to boutiques looking to move up the bank M&A food chain. D.A. Davidson, for instance, has traditionally been focused on the West Coast, but has been adding bankers in the Midwest in an effort to cover a larger swath of the country.

SNL Financial, citing unnamed sources, reported last week that Piper Jaffray is a front-runner for trying to buy Sterne Agee's investment bank. A call to Piper Jaffray was not returned.

Another complication could involve the recent departure of Daryle DiLascia, formerly the head of depository investment banking at Sterne Agee. DiLascia declined to comment, but his LinkedIn page lists his time at Sterne Agee as having ended in March 2015. The profile now lists him as a specialist in financial services.

DiLascia joined Sterne Agee in late 2012, just days after Stifel agreed to buy KBW, where he had worked for 16 years. Like DiLascia, many of Sterne Agee's investment bankers used to work at Stifel or KBW. Tom Michaud, KBW's chief executive, said in a broad-based interview last week that there was too much overlap between KBW and Sterne Agee's equities and investment bank to make a combination work.

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