North Carolina banking giant NCNB Corp., which has long been looking to expand its reach into the Washington area, recently made overtures to First American Bankshares, parent firm of First American Banks of Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

First American Chairman Clark M. Clifford yesterday confirmed that NCNB and several other banks have approached him to discuss possible mergers. But he said that the Arab shareholders who control First American "have not shown any interest" in those inquiries and "the bank is not for sale."

However, other sources familiar with the bank's operations said they believe First American would be available for sale if the right offer came along.

NCNB spokesman Dick Stilley declined to comment on a possible merger between NCNB and First American, but he reiterated that the Washington market "is one of great interest."

The interest in First American follows a wave of bank mergers along the East Coast, which climaxed last year with the announcement of a merger between Sovran Financial Corp. and Citizens & Southern Corp. that will form the largest regional bank holding company in the nation.

Clifford said the Sovran-C&S deal prompted a number of phone calls between bankers, including calls to First American. Robert Altman, president of First American Corp., also said that recent financial trouble at Perpetual Savings Bank, the largest thrift in the Washington area, has set regional banks on edge and prompted further interest in mergers and acquisitions. First American's financial health is suffering, with earnings down sharply last year to $66.7 million from $80.2 million in 1988. Analysts said the bank's return on assets has been low and the bank also has been spending millions of dollars on new technology, which has hurt the bottom line.

Arnold Danielson, president of Danielson Associates Inc., a local bank consulting firm, said the combination of depressed earnings and recent controversy make First American "extremely attractive" to potential buyers, who might sense they could buy the bank for a bargain price.

The bank recently was the subject of articles in Regardie's and the Wall Street Journal that raised questions about the overlapping ownership interests of First American and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which recently pleaded guilty to money laundering charges and is suffering massive losses.

Danielson said First American is one of the three best franchises in Washington, following Sovran and MNC Financial Corp., parent of Maryland National Bank and American Security. "If I wanted to buy anyone in this area, that would be the one," he said.