More new banks have opened in 1996 than in any year since 1990, as entrepreneurs have rushed in to fill voids left by mergers and consolidation.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said that through Monday, 144 state- and federally chartered commercial banks had started operating this year. That's 41% more than the 102 in all of 1995, though a far cry from the annual totals of 200 to 400 that prevailed through most of the 1980s.

Start-ups had been falling steadily - from 299 in 1988, 192 in 1989, and 165 in 1990 to a low of 50 in 1994. Observers say new banks tend to sprout where locally controlled institutions disappear through acquisition, a process that has accelerated in the last two years.

"It's fallout from all the acquisition activity," said Chris Hargrove, president of Professional Bank Services, a consulting firm in Louisville, Ky. "Things are just coming around full circle."

In addition, interest among bank investors remains high in the currently booming market, making capital readily available.

The upsurge in chartering is also being driven by an abundance of experienced executives left adrift by their former institutions' merging and downsizing, observers say.

In fact, some of the most successful start-ups were the work of former bankers who sold their institutions and waited until their agreements not to compete had expired.

"It's a trend that you're going to see continue because of the availability of very good bankers in the market," said Daniel P. Daly, president and chief executive officer of $23 million-asset First Capital Bank of Peoria, Ill., which opened April 17.

But even with the heightened interest in forming banks, consolidation continues apace. There have been 304 bank mergers in 1996 to date.

Observers said there is a time lag between a falloff in banks due to consolidation and the decision by local businesspeople to start new institutions.

"It's at least a one-year delay, probably more like two to three years, before you see the slingshot of new ones starting from the fallout of the purchases," said David W. Dunbar, president and chief executive of $29 million-asset People's Bank, which opened May 10 in Palm Harbor, Fla.

Thirteen states each accounted for at least five new banks this year, adding up to 56% of the total. All 13 are in the Southeast or Midwest, generally in areas that have seen a lot of merger activity.

And the outlook for still more start-ups remains favorable, as dozens of business groups in areas such as California, Arizona, and parts of the Southeast are seeking financial backing in preparation for seeking new charters.

"There's a lot of interest out there," said David J. Block, an attorney at Leland, Parachini, Steinberg, Flinn, Metzger & Melnick, a San Francisco- based law firm that has handled 14 new bank applications in California since 1979.

"It's oriented toward the local community which has lost its locally oriented bank," the lawyer said.

In addition to the 144 new banks this year, at least 31 received charters but have not opened. And 37 applications for deposit insurance are pending at the FDIC.

Illinois had the most bank openings this year, with nine. Florida and Kentucky were right behind, with eight each, followed by Iowa, Minnesota, and South Carolina, with seven.

For Iowa, which has a large number of banks for a state its size, the thought of additional start-ups has some state officials scratching their heads.

"It keeps surprising us, and there's talk of some more," said Mary Fehring, assistant to Iowa superintendent of banking Michael K. Guttau.

"The community bankers see an opportunity in some of these areas. They think the present banks are not serving the communities and they see a market they can expand into."

But several consultants cautioned that starting up a bank isn't as easy as many would-be bankers might think. New banks often end up raising too much capital for their ability to leverage it, and then spend too much on overhead expenses for the first few years.

Or they might grow too quickly, having to return to the market for more capital sooner than expected.

And the institutions must struggle to keep up with today's technology, while finding ways to attract core deposits.

"Don't charter a de novo bank thinking that you're going to start it up, build it, and then sell it after five years for a big profit," Mr. Hargrove said. "That rarely happens."

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