Bank acquisitions surged during the third quarter, but you wouldn't know it by the bearish outlook provided by big banks in recent weeks.

Downbeat forecasts on consolidation from Wells Fargo (WFC), BB&T (BBT), People's United Financial and other large banking companies reinforced an emerging consensus among investors and analysts that small banks will dominate the next wave of deals.

The banks that largely defined the last wave of acquisitions are likely to play secondary roles as smaller institutions, facing numerous financial and strategic challenges, seek buyers.

The few banking companies that have completed large acquisitions in recent years will likely be preoccupied with integrations, including M&T Bank (MTB), PNC Financial Services Group (PNC) and Capital One Financial (COF).

Most of the remaining banks with $25 billion or more in assets are either reluctant or unable to pursue large, transformative deals, or they have determined that there are few targets worth buying.

That includes Wells Fargo, which had $120 billion deposited at the Federal Reserve at Sept. 30. The San Francisco company had used its excess cash in the first half of this year to buy a subscription-finance business from WestLB and an energy-lending operation from BNP Paribas. But the third quarter came and went for Wells without another deal of note.

"We didn't have a medium-sized or large acquisition … like we've had over the last few quarters," Timothy Sloan, the company's chief financial officer, said during an Oct. 12 conference call with analysts.

Wells has considered multiple deals but ultimately decided that they had too much risk or not enough return.

"We haven't found anything that makes sense for us," John Stumpf, Wells' chairman, president and chief executive, said during the quarterly call. "If we could find a great asset that'd be great."

BB&T, in Winston-Salem, N.C., and People's United, in Bridgeport, Conn., face similar challenges. BB&T acquired Crump Group's life, property and casualty insurance unit in April and the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., banking operations of BankAtlantic in August.

A lack of reasonably priced depository institutions has BB&T looking to open branches on its own. Building branches is cheaper than buying them, Kelly King, BB&T's chairman, president and chief executive, told analysts on Oct. 18.

"The sellers' desired returns today are generally higher than what we're willing to invest," King said during a conference call. So BB&T "is looking at this de novo strategy. … You can surmise that we're not expecting much acquisition activity."

People's United also expects very little action on the merger front as well after completing its purchase of 57 New York-area branches from Citizens Financial Group in June. A hindrance to People's acquisition aims: It operates in a heavily consolidated region where banks are relatively expensive.

"M&A has been quiet and we don't see that general environment changing too fast," John Barnes, People's United's president and chief executive, said during a conference call on Oct. 18.

Two banks that bought parts of HSBC Holdings (HBC) in upstate New York earlier this year say that internal growth is their top priority: First Niagara Financial Group (FNFG) in Buffalo, N.Y., and KeyCorp (KEY) in Cleveland.

When analysts inquired about acquisitions, John Koelmel, First Niagara's president and chief executive, said during an Oct. 18 conference call that he is "fully focused on running the business right along with everyone else."

KeyCorp is apt to repurchase shares or boost its dividend before making another acquisition, Beth Mooney, the company's chairman, president and chief executive, said during an Oct. 18 conference call. "Our first priority is to support our own organic growth," she said.

There were 60 whole-bank mergers worth about $9.5 billion that were announced in the third quarter, marking the busiest quarter since the second quarter of 2010, according to SNL Financial.

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