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Euro Crisis Is Still US Regional Banks Best M&A Target

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The euro zone crisis may be the best opportunity for U.S. regional banks to grow the top and bottom line that's come around in a while. Capital One (COF - Get Report) is already being transformed into the nation's fifth largest bank after buying ING Direct from Dutch banking giant ING (ING) in 2011. It's a strategy that other super regional banks might consider if European banking conglomerates begin shedding U.S. assets.

There's been a constant murmur as U.S. banks recover from the financial crisis that choice U.S.-based assets owned by European firms would hit the selling block. So far only a handful of deals have emerged, and super regional bank CEOs have been more focused on returning capital to investors through dividends and share repurchases.

The transformational acquisition by Capital One, though, could lead to a reassessment of M&A prospects for U.S. Bancorp (USB - Get Report) and BB&T (BBT - Get Report), super regional financial institutions that stand to benefit most from the acquisition of assets owned by the likes of Spain's BBVA (BBVA) and Santander (STD), France's BNP Paribas (BNPQY) and RBS (RBS - Get Report) of Great Britain. PNC (PNC - Get Report) may also see a reason to cut deals.

"Given the continued financial stress in Europe, it appears highly likely that some European banks may continue to shed non-core assets in the U.S. to raise capital, refocus on their core markets or deploy the capital to other growth opportunities," writes Erika Penala, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst in a Tuesday note to clients. "We believe USB and BBT would be the best positioned among the US regional banks to capitalize on such an opportunity."

After a pre-crisis sector consolidation put the likes of Sovereign Bank, Compass Bancshares, Bank of the West and Citizens Bank into the hands of European conglomerates, the prospective need to raise capital to meet an escalating European crisis and new stress test measures may put assets on the selling block.

Already, U.K and Dutch regulators have prompted divestitures to ensure a speedier return of bailout funds. Meanwhile, some of the rare cross-border bank deals are proving profitable and expectations are high for Capital One's ING Direct acquisition .

Penala concedes that the timing of prospective asset sales is highly uncertain -- if they occur at all -- and her analysis is not based on any known discussions of M&A deals.

When the sovereign debt crisis first flared up and jeopardized the health of many European banks, some wondered if U.S. retail bank asset fire sales would follow, but few deals have emerged.

Nevertheless, other financial sector analysts think euzo zone crisis-linked M&A is a trend to watch.

"We do think that there are some quality European properties that U.S. banks would love to buy," says Fred Cannon, a bank analyst with KBW. "We would expect that given the challenges in Europe, ultimately we could see some divestitures."

Liquidity injections like the European Central Bank's LTRO and the strategic and financial import of U.S. bank assets may have tempered the pace of sales. The importance of U.S. based liquidity and deposits may also be slowing sale plans, adds Cannon.
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