Questions about mergers and acquisitions are likely to dominate first-quarter conference calls among regional banks in the coming weeks. But beyond the standard "we're open to opportunities" line from executives, the real story will be in the numbers.

For those banks that have been pegged as possible sellers, the earnings reports may be especially telling. If metrics like their nonperforming assets, capital levels and loan balances improve, troubled regional banks could prove their ability to stand on their own.

"The challenge is trying to interpret what the company says," said Christopher Marinac, managing principal and director of research at FIG Partners LLC. "There's pressure to say you can do it. There's pressure to show you can survive."

On the flip side, better results could just make those banks more attractive buys, and help them command a better price down the line.

"Some of these management teams of companies that are probably more likely sellers feel like waiting is the best option, waiting for maybe their company to turn a profit, waiting for better valuations for buyers," said Jennifer Demba, a managing director at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. "They may feel like waiting six to 12 months is better."

Though M&A has been a topic of conversation among market players all year, the focus on bank deals has been heightened since reports surfaced last week that Royal Bank of Canada is looking to offload RBC Bank, its U.S. unit operating in six states in the Southeast. That region was hit particularly hard by the housing market bust and some banks there have been lagging banks of similar size in other regions in credit quality. Those circumstances make it a potential hotbed of M&A activity.

"There's definitely a good amount of interest in the Southeast banks," said John Pancari, a managing director and senior regional bank analyst at Evercore Partners. "They're under stress, so when you have banks still under pressure, you get a good amount of interest because that's where the opportunities could be."

Analysts aren't expecting executives to give away a whole lot when it comes to their views on M&A. But there may be nuances in what some of the more troubled banks say that could provide clues.

"They're going to be vague. You can expect that. But I think they're going to want to imply they have options," said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a managing director at Sandler O'Neill. "Any company is not going to rule out being a seller. They'll just come with the standard answer to that question that they're going to do what's right for shareholders. And they're going to look at offers that come along and they wouldn't rule it out. That being said, they'll couch that with how they feel their progress is doing. If the management team feels things aren't improving … that tag line of them as a seller may be a harder stick in the near term. But if they feel good about the direction they're going, they're going to want to be paid a market premium."

Marinac said a good way to handle the M&A matter is to bring the focus back to the numbers.

"The answer that I've seen work over my career is when companies say we're going to do the best we can to improve our earnings today and we're going to let the market judge what they think," he said. "In my opinion that's the right way to coach a management team of how to approach that question, because they can control the earnings."

The three areas of focus for analysts will be earnings potential, credit quality and capital strength.

For those banks that are still struggling to turn a profit, including Regions Financial Corp., Synovus Financial Corp. and Zions Bancorp., analysts and investors will want to see that they are on a clear path to profitability, i.e., increasing pre-provision net revenue, decreasing provisions for credit losses, effective expense controls and the potential for loan growth.

"The way Regions and any bank would look at it, they are not on the block, they're not for sale," Fitzsimmons said. "I think again they are going to measure that against what they think they can do on their own. You get into a real human part of it. If you've weathered the storm this far and you think the worst is behind you and you're almost back to profitability, you see momentum, you're probably going to be hesitant to give that upside to someone else. So it depends on where they see themselves on that path."

Regions, Synovus and Zions all said they do not comment on M&A speculation.

Another big factor is credit quality. Most companies' credit costs have come down over the last few quarters as levels of chargeoffs and delinquencies diminish. But for the banks where credit quality has lagged, there is more pressure to show continued improvement.

"We saw significant provision improvement at the back half of last year," said Peyton Green, a managing director at Sterne Agee in Nashville. "Follow-through is needed."

What would bring analysts and investors comfort is more robust disclosure, Marinac said.

"We have some color from companies about how [many] problems they have today," he said. However, "there is the thinking that there is a whole wave behind it."

There is an impression that Regions, for example, has more acute issues than its executives have been admitting to, Marinac said. If the Birmingham, Ala., bank can provide data "that confirms that their actual level of problems is less, that makes a big difference," he said.

Capital levels are another issue plaguing potential sellers. The results of the Federal Reserve's latest round of stress tests that were released a few weeks ago helped shine some light on where banks stand relative to capital.

Since then, a handful of banks, including KeyCorp and SunTrust Banks Inc., have raised capital in the public market and returned their federal bailout funds. Others have raised or reinstated their dividends. These actions are a sure signal of strength, distinguishing these companies more as buyers than sellers.

But Troubled Asset Relief Program funds have become less of a black eye for those banks like Regions and Zions that have yet to return the capital, Pancari said.

"Banks that have waited to get out of Tarp, they've actually been fairing better in their ability to raise equity in a less dilutive fashion," he said. "The writing is on the wall that the banks that have been patient … they've generally experienced less dilution when it does come time to go to the capital markets and raise money to get out of Tarp."

Ultimately, it comes down to each individual bank.

"I don't think there's any one magic number you can point to that says, 'We're a buyer' [or] 'We're a seller,' " said Michael Rose, vice president of equity research at Raymond James.

He cited the deal between NewAlliance Bancshares of New Haven, Conn., and First Niagara Financial Group Inc., announced in August, as a prime example of how tenuous speculation can be.

"Everyone thought [NewAlliance was] going to be buyers," Rose said. "They had a lot of capital, they navigated the credit cycle pretty well and then they decided to sell. It's hard to tell. You can't point to any one particular metric. There's no magic, silver-bullet approach to identifying buyers and sellers. You just have to look bank by bank."