NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Barclays ( BCS) is reportedly eyeing acquisition targets in U.S. consumer banking, but the vague speculation surrounding such a deal may not be enough reason to buy potential targets, and should give investors pause about buying shares of Barclays itself. The U.K. investment bank has proven to be a shrewd dealmaker and risk manager during the financial crisis. It avoided the large government bailouts that competitors like Northern Rock, Royal Bank of Scotland ( RBS), Lloyds ( LYG) and HBOS had to receive to stay afloat. It raised private capital, and bought the bankrupt Lehman Brothers' North American operations in 2008 at a relative bargain. Now, it seems, Barclays has shifted its focus from Wall Street to Main Street. The bank is looking for a large regional franchise to balance out its U.S. operations, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. The story didn't cite any specific targets from Barclays' point of view, because the bank has only just gotten a team together to assess potential targets and "no deal is imminent." But analysts' suggestions of where a bulls-eye may be placed has helped lift some regional stocks in recent days. The KBW Regional Banking ETF ( KRE) has climbed 3% since the start of the week, closing at $25.83 on Thursday. The Journal story cited SunTrust ( STI), Fifth Third Bancorp ( FITB) or Comerica ( CMA) as potential candidates, but noted that there's "no indication" those companies are willing to make such a deal, nor that they have discussed the matter with Barclays. Other regional banks that have gotten a stock boost, possibly because of Barclays-M&A speculation, include Regions Financial ( RF), Huntington Bancshares ( HBAN), KeyCorp ( KEY), Zions Bancorp ( ZION), and Marshall & Ilsley ( MI). As for Barclays itself, FBR downgraded its stock earlier this week to market perform, saying its performance has "effectively round-tripped" back to levels seen after disappointing third-quarter results. The analyst believes there is "still...upside in absolute terms" but that Barclays has run its course in outperforming its sector for the near term -- especially if a deal is imminent. "Should stories circling the press on a potential U.S. acquisition prove true, we believe that this would create further headwinds for relative performance against the sector," analyst Jonathan Tyce said in a note.
For Barclays, the purpose of the deal is to expand the bank's retail deposit base, both to please U.S. regulators and to ensure a stable source of funding that isn't taxed as heavily as its trading operations may be. The bank appears to have ample capital, but tougher regulations may make it less costly to rely on pure-vanilla deposits for funding. Barclays made a killing in 2009 as the capital markets improved tremendously, in part because it was able to leverage the strong bond and equities capabilities of the former Lehman operations. Along with a major gain from an asset sale, Barclays was able to weather still-bleak economic conditions in the United Kingdom, where it is based, and in many other markets where it operates. Now that a premium is being placed on deposits, the quickest and easiest way to obtain them would be through a major acquisition. From a macro view, Barclays would seem to want a regional bank with a broad branch network, strong deposit base, and few problem loans. But it would also want to find one that's willing to sell itself at the right price. Given the lack of specifics on which banks Barclays is interested in, the fact that its M&A interest has been widely publicized, and that the FDIC is selling lots of loans and deposits of failed institutions on the cheap, the strategy may well change. Investors hoping to ride the regional bank stock wave -- or Barclays itself -- on hopes of a deal should take note. -- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York