First Commerce Corp., Hibernia Corp. or Whitney Holding Corp. - which will it be?

Analysts feel certain at least one of the three big New Orleans banks is likely to be acquired within the next few years.

The reason: Louisiana's improving economy makes the state more attractive. And Banc One Corp.'s recent purchase of Baton Rouge-based Premier Bancorp accelerates the race for market share.

Since Premier has only a minor presence in the New Orleans market, analysts assume Banc One will want to expand its franchise through acquisition.

But there are other potential out-of-state buyers as well, including Regions Financial Corp., Birmingham; Union Planters Corp., Memphis; and Jackson, Miss.-based Deposit Guaranty Corp. All of these banks have already entered Louisiana.

The case for identifying First Commerce as a potential target is simple: It possesses the best franchise in the state. Having weathered the recession of the 1980s better than its peers, First Commerce is financially stronger and better deployed around Louisiana than either Hibernia or Whitney. It controls one-fourth of the deposits in New Orleans, the state's best market.

But the old adage that banks are sold rather than bought must also be considered. First Commerce probably enjoys more options than either Hibernia or Whitney. "Banks tend to sell when they run of gas, and that simply does not describe First Commerce," says analyst Henry J. Coffey Jr., with J.C. Bradford & Co.

Mr. Coffey says his firm is recommending First Commerce on fundamentals but prefers Whitney as a potential takeover target. Other analysts who follow First Commerce tend to agree that Whitney or Hibernia will likely be sold before First Commerce.

"First Commerce, from my discussions with them, appears to be the most resistant to possibly sitting down and talking - but I wouldn't rule it out," says Dean Witter's Anthony A. Lombardi.

First Commerce president and CEO Ian Arnof doesn't offer much guidance on the matter except to say that his company isn't talking to Banc One "or anybody else."

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